How Charles Atlas Invented The Most Popular Ad Campaign

Visakan Veerasamy
Visakan Veerasamy
July 17, 2013
2 min read
How Charles Atlas Invented The Most Popular Ad Campaign

In this article

We're all in the business of selling stuff, one way or another. And it always makes sense for us to try to get better at it.

So how do we go about getting better at selling? We can figure it out ourselves, through trial and error. Or we can learn from the people who've been successful at it. The latter feels far less tedious, so let's do that.

Enter Charles Atlas, the most popular muscleman of the 1930s.

Charles Atlas trained himself to develop from a "scrawny weakling" to one of the most popular musclemen in the 1930s. He (with others) set up a mail-order business to sell a fitness routine.

The result was one of the most popular and successful ad campaigns of all time.

Take a look:


One of the legendary Atlas ads.

1: Tell a story.

Getting people to buy something is an ardous affair. You want them to break their pattern to do something they haven't done before. Interrupting people to get them to buy stuff is especially hard, and rarely successful. It's also typically unpleasant for them, and it's kinda rude.

Rather thant demand people's attention, earn it with a compelling story that fits their beliefs and desires. We all wired to like good stories. Give your customers the opportunity to buy into a story that they believe in, and they'll be much more receptive to you.

Shopify's CPO Harley Finkelstein talked about this in his talk about 12 Modern Marketing Tactics used by Shopify Stores.

2: The magic word is YOU.

You can put your entire music library in your pocket. You can be the snazziest dresser among your friends. You can be a strong, confident person.

You don't care about us, You care about what we can do for You. If we consistently do great stuff for You, then maybe You might become our fans, and You might stand in line for our future products, subscribe to our newsletters. That's only because of the emotional connection You have with our brand. It's a promise You trust.

Okay, we went a bit overboard there, but you get the picture.

3: The other magic word is FREE.

Giving away free stuff triggers a lot of good feelings in people.

Gifting is a fantastic persuasion tactic and communicates confidence rather than neediness. Of course, the most effective way to communicate confidence is to actually be confident. This requires you to really understand your stuff. Charles Atlas was confident that he could make you fitter, and so his sales was compelling.

Get really good at what you do, then give some of it away for free. You'll build a thankful audience. This is a bit of a psychological hack, and it's powerful stuff. Please be responsible with it.

Further reading: The Psychology Of Freemium Games – Lessons And Insights That Can Improve Your Business

4: Show proof.


Atlas's body is right there in all his ads. He's strong and happy, and he impresses all the ladies. He's walked the talk, and he's offering you a chance to do the same.

The thing about proof is... it has to be real. You can't sell a fitness program if you aren't fit. You can't sell your clothes as "stylish" if they aren't stylish. The story you tell has to be genuine. It has to withstand scrutiny and some degree of skepticism.

Further reading: See For Yourself! 12 Examples of Credibility in Marketing

5: Have a clear and simple call-to-action.

All Atlas needed you to do was to mail in your name and address. He didn't confuse his readers by asking them to sign up for this, to buy that, to look at this. No, no, no.

  1. Read the story
  2. Learn about the benefits
  3. Mail in your address

Having come this far, don't sabotage yourself by overwhelming your customers with choices and options.

Give them one simple action to perform, and leave it at that.


Further reading for the curious:

1: - Charles Atlas: Muscle Man. A compelling biopic of the man and the phenomena.
2: Cartoonician - The Ad that made an Icon out of Mac. An interesting, in-depth analysis of the sociocultural context and implications of the ad campaign.

Image Credit: Charles Atlas LTD

Visakan Veerasamy
Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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