Quote Origin: One-Half the Money I Spend for Advertising Is Wasted, But I Have Never Been Able To Decide Which Half

John Wanamaker? William Hesketh Lever? William Hulme Lever? Lord Leverhulme? William Wrigley Jr.? John T. Dorrance? Robert C. Ogden? George Washington Hill? Roy L. Smith? David Ogilvy? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Readers often ignore advertisements, but sometimes ads decisively influence purchasing decisions. A business mogul once humorously commented on this hit-or-miss quality. Here are two versions:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.

Fifty cents out of every dollar I spent for advertising was wasted, but I could never be sure which fifty cents it was.

This saying has been attributed to U.S. department story magnate John Wanamaker and to English industrialist William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI occurred within a 1919 speech delivered at a bible conference held in Indiana. Reverend Roy L. Smith spoke about “The Salesmanship of Preaching”, and he ascribed the saying to Wanamaker. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

John Wanamaker once said, “I am convinced that about one-half the money I spend for advertising is wasted, but I have never been able to decide which half.”

Wanamaker died in 1922 when he was 84 years old. QI has been unable to find a direct citation to a written or spoken instance from Wannamaker; hence, this ascription remains uncertain. Nevertheless, Wannamaker is currently the leading candidate.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A partial match occurred in the New York periodical “Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers” in 1890:2

don’t forget that half of the money spent in advertising is wasted

In 1897 a partial match also occurred within an advertisement published in “Gunton’s Magazine” of New York:3

Many of them admit, freely but helplessly, that one half of their advertising appropriations are wasted.

In 1898 “The Bankers Magazine” of New York printed a short piece about an executive working at John Wanamaker’s company. The executive employed a partial match during a speech:4

Robert C. Ogden head of the house of John Wanamaker in New York made an address before the Merchants’ Association March 16, on “Advertising as a Business Force.” Mr. Ogden said that the success of business depended upon three things, merchandise, service and advertising, and he looked upon the latter as the dynamic power of the business. …

He believed that fully fifty per cent. of the money spent on advertising was wasted through being improperly placed.

In 1911 the Wanamaker company released a book titled “Golden Book of the Wanamaker Stores: Jubilee Year: 1861-1911”. The work included a vivid simile:5

It is generally known that common advertising is like barrels of seed in which half of the seed is dead.

In 1919 Reverend Roy L. Smith delivered a speech during which he credited the full version of the saying to Wanamaker as mentioned previously in this article:

John Wanamaker once said, “I am convinced that about one-half the money I spend for advertising is wasted, but I have never been able to decide which half.”

In 1920 “The Advertising Age” of Chicago, Illinois printed an instance without attribution:6

“It has been said,” remarks an exchange, “that one-half of all the money spent for advertising is wasted, but no one knows which half it is.”

One clew may be found by the skillful investigator—it isn’t the half which is spent for newspaper advertising.

In 1922 “Printers’ Ink Monthly” published an interview with John T. Dorrance who was president of the Joseph Campbell Company which is best known today for making Campbell Soup. Dorrance credited Wanamaker with an instance using the term “fifty cents”:7

As regards our expenditures for advertising, I agree with a statement attributed to John Wanamaker, who said he thought that fifty cents out of every dollar spent for advertising was wasted, but he could never be sure which fifty cents it was.

In 1925 “The Evening Gazette” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa published the following:8

John Wanamaker once remarked that he believed that fifty cents out of each dollar which he spent for advertising was wasted, but that since he could never tell which fifty cents it was, he continued to spend the entire dollar.

In 1931 “The East Kent Times” of England reported on a speech delivered by businessman William Hulme Lever who co-founded Unilever. He ascribed the saying to his father William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme) who had died in 1925:9

His father used to say that half the money spent in advertising was wasted, but he was unable to say which half it was. In order to solve the problem they had not only to study the commodity they were advertising but the public which they were trying to appeal to.

In 1958 “The Daily Telegraph” of London reported on an address delivered by Lord Heyworth at the Annual General Meeting of Unilever Limited. He attributed the saying to Lord Leverhulme:10

The first Lord Leverhulme used to say that half his advertising was wasted, but he never knew which half. We hope that we are on the way to bettering that score.

In 1963 British advertising expert David Ogilvy published “Confessions of an Advertising Man” which included the following passage:11

But advertising is still an inexact speculation. As the first Lord Leverhulme (and John Wanamaker after him) complained, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

In 1980 a piece in the “Los Angeles Times” attributed the saying to the former President of the American Tobacco Company:12

American Tobacco Co.’s George Washington Hill used to say that 50 cents of every dollar the company spent on advertising was wasted. The trouble was, however, that there was no way of knowing which 50 cents it was. And so he ensured that they went on spending the whole dollar all the same.

In 1992 a newspaper columnist in Naples, Florida attributed an instance to chewing gum merchant William Wrigley Jr.:13

As William Wrigley Jr. commented many years ago, “I know half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

In conclusion, John Wanamaker received credit for the saying in 1919, and he is the leading candidate. William Hesketh Lever’s son gave him credit in 1931, but the late date of the attribution reduced its probative value. David Ogilvy used the expression in 1963, but he disclaimed credit.

Image Notes: Illustration of multi-colored text spelling “shop” from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to George Mannes and Arnold Zwicky whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to pioneering researchers Ralph Keyes, Barry Popik, Nigel Rees, and Fred R. Shapiro. Keyes’s book “The Quote Verifier” pointed out that the saying had been attributed to John Wanamaker, William Hesketh Lever, William Wrigley Jr., and George Washington Hill. Popik located the key 1919 attribution to John Wanamaker.

Update History: On May 9, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1919, Winona Echoes: Addresses Delivered at the Winona Bible Conference, Held in Winona Lake, Indiana in August 1919, The Salesmanship of Preaching by Reverend Roy L. Smith, Start Page 333, Quote Page 333, Published by Authority of Winona Publishing Society. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1890 October 1, Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers, Volume 3, Number 14, Don’ts for Advertisers by Quote Page 311, Column 1 and 2, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1897 October, Gunton’s Magazine, Of Interest to Every Business Man (Advertisement), Page i, (After Page 326), The Gunton Institute of Social Economics, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1898 April, The Bankers Magazine, Volume 56, Number 4, Advertising for Profit, Quote Page 549, Bradford Rhodes & Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1911, Golden Book of the Wanamaker Stores: Jubilee Year: 1861-1911, Compiled by the John Wanamaker Firm, Quote Page 216, Publisher not specified; Possibly John Wanamaker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  6. 1920 November, The Advertising Age and Mail Order Journal, Volume 23, “Magazine and Billboards, Maybe”, Quote Page 8, The Mail Order Journal Co., Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust) link ↩︎
  7. 1922 January, Printers’ Ink Monthly, Volume 4, Number 2, Sticking to One Idea Made Campbell’s the National Soup An Interview with Dr. John T. Dorrance (President, Joseph Campbell Company), Start Page 23, Quote Page 23, Column 3, Romer Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1925 August 24, The Evening Gazette, Advertising Is Motive Power Of Business: Wrigley, Quote Page 14, Column 4, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1931 February 28, The East Kent Times, Value of Advertising, Quote Page 12, Column 5, Kent, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  10. 1958 April 25, The Daily Telegraph, Unilever: Market Research, Quote Page 3, Column 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1963, Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, Chapter 3: How to Keep Clients, Quote Page 59, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  12. 1980 March 28, The Los Angeles Times, Effective Executives ‘Waste’ Time by Auren Uris and Jane Bensahel, Section 4, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  13. 1992 April 5, Naples Daily News, A Rolodex could run government by John Lunsford, Quote Page B1, Column 1, Naples, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎