History of Online Course Advertising: Review of 1955 ICS Ad

History of Online Course Advertising: Review of 1955 "What Does Your Dad Do?"​ Ad


I have loved history for a long time. I love taking online courses. I love copywriting, which I learned through online courses. So, I figured I should write about something that brings all these things together for this week’s post.

What is the history of online education? According to Peterson’s it all started in 1960 at the University of Illinois when students created an intranet of linked computer terminals where they could access course materials and listen to recorded lectures. (source: https://www.petersons.com/blog/The-history-of-online-education/) This grew into something called PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) and it grew in use across the globe.

But this same article from Peterson’s rightly points out that correspondence courses are the first form of distance learning but instead of communicating quickly over the internet, they were forced to use the mail. So let’s go further back in time to see what lessons and tips can be learned by reviewing one old correspondence course ad.

According to WorldWideLearn, “[I]n 1873, the first correspondence schools in the United States were founded, called The Society to Encourage Studies at Home.” Source below:


Well, for today I am sticking with and ad from 1955 that caught my eye. Here it is below:


You know you have a powerful ad headline when it is still true in 2020. “When the other kids ask… WHAT DOES YOUR DAD DO? How does your boy answer them?”

Not only does this ad speak directly to all the dads out there, it punches them in the gut with a reminder that their kids and their social lives are at stake. The bigger this is a pain point, the more willing the Dad is to send for the free offer and eventually buy a course.

This type of line can still be powerful today when selling an online course. You would update the copy to include moms and daughters or run separate ads targeting men vs. women, but include both sons and daughters.

The first small print paragraph softens the blow of the headline by picking up the dad a bit by saying, “Sure…you’re his hero. You know that.” But then the pain is pushed in the next sentence since the Dad can’t control other kids from asking the question at the schoolyard.

There is the use of a “it’s not your fault” line when the ad speaks to the dad and understands that they may have had to leave school early, maybe they had to go fight in the war.

So the ad identifies and amplifies the struggle for the dad, and next comes the solution. It says the dad can still “Make the Grade!” The International Correspondence Schools (I.C.S.) is here to provide the training to give the dad a career with “prestige, advancement, and security.”

Next comes some of the features of the course and a testimonial of a coal miner with no high school education who became a licensed engineer with I.C.S. This is all a pattern you see in good copywriting to this day.

Speaking of good patterns still in use, the free offers aka “lead magnet” appears. It is an offer for not just 1, not 2, but 3 free books! They direct the dad to “SEND TODAY!”.

Finally you have the form to mail back. It a partial list of 277 courses they can get more info on in addition to the 3 free books. Something they could’ve highlighted some more would be the special tuition rates to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Since much of their target market are military veterans and they look patriotic and caring with this discount to even non-veterans, this would make for a cool thing to highlight in larger print.

I look forward to studying more of these correspondence course ads in the future since I specialize in helping online entrepreneurs spread the wisdom of their online courses far and wide. There are some wonderful lessons and ideas that can be borrowed from these ads that can be applied to today’s courses and advertising.