• Steven Heller

The Art of Per Inquiry Ads

Well, “art” may not be an accurate word, but there has always been a craft to “per inquiry,” or coupon, adverts. They are not all herded into cheap publications, as some find their way into high-tone mags as well. But the classic “PIs” were found in pulps and comics. And the classic of them all was this Charles Atlas opus:

The long-term popular response to Mr. Atlas, the pioneer of DIY fitness, was incredible. (And as charlesatlas.com notes, “Charles Atlas, Ltd. remains one of the oldest American companies still in operation.”)

But there were many Johnny-come-afters who sought to sell their services through coupons. Often discounts on the ad buys were based on the number of reader responses, which were measured by codes on the coupon. Design was not nuanced with this genre, in fact the more crammed the better, the more sensational the larger the appeal. The PI ad also demanded that the potential clipper read long columns of boring pitch text. But surprisingly, the patience quotient was higher when it came to these ads. In fact, many of the products advertised were not just fly-by-night medicine show hoaxes but real attempts to provide a service (sometimes).

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