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Frank Johnson; Direct Mail Master

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank H. Johnson, the direct-mail advertising wizard whose name rightly or wrongly is associated with that note at the top of a solicitation letter succinctly stating the pitch--the “Johnson box"--has died. He was 88.

Johnson, a gifted copywriter who touted magazines and exotic birds via the nation’s mailboxes, died March 6 in Manhattan.

The oft-imitated Johnson box involves three to five sentences centered above a pitch letter’s salutation. It quickly reveals the price, savings, expiration date, product or service, any bonus gift and trial period. By getting that out of the way fast, the box allowed Johnson or any other pitchman to begin the letter in a friendly, lyrical way, unencumbered by tedious sales details.

Research has shown that adding a Johnson box to a direct mail letter increases response by an average of 40%.

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Yet, according to one of Johnson’s most successful proteges, Bill Jayme, “the father of direct marketing” didn’t think he invented the technique and hated having his name attached to it. Johnson much preferred, Jayme told a marketing trade publication last year, to be remembered for the giant folding 17-by-22-inch circulars he created for Time-Life and American Heritage magazines.

“The truth is nobody has invented anything in direct mail,” Johnson told Boardroom magazine in 1999. “Direct mail has been written for many years before any of us were born, and we all swiped from whoever the originators were.”

Johnson said he got the idea of the pitch box from the provocative chapter summaries in 19th century novels.

Ed McLean, strategist and copywriter, claimed in a 1991 marketing advice column that it was he who named it after Johnson about 1967.

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Born in Cambridge, Ohio, Johnson attended Kenyon College and Ohio State University. An English professor may have sensed the youth’s future in advertising when he gave him an A+ for inventing a story about dragons for a medieval English exam. “You write most entertainingly on a subject,” the professor noted, “you know nothing about.”

Johnson began as an office boy at Time Inc. and, with time out for service in the Army Air Corps during World War II, worked there from 1934 to 1957. He rose to circulation director of Life magazine, and later became circulation-promotion manager of Fortune magazine.

In 1957 Johnson helped start American Heritage magazine, managing advertising campaigns for that magazine, its companion Horizon, and the books the company published.

Eventually Johnson started his own company, handling solicitations for magazines that included Harper’s, Ms. and Newsweek and museums and wildlife organizations, including the Audubon Society.

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In 1966, he became the first recipient of the annual award given by the National Assn. of Direct Mail Writers.

One of Johnson’s most famous mailings was posted in 1982: a bug-eyed sandhill crane staring at the reader from the vicinity of the address label. The wording read “RELAX! Both of you” and the letter invited support for the Nature Conservancy.

Johnson never used his own name on the letters he wrote that add to about 90 billion pieces of direct mail sent each year. If not writing over the signature of some company executive, he occasionally used the name David Forrest. He never explained the pseudonym’s origin, but kept the fan mail addressed to Forrest.

Johnson is survived by three children and six grandchildren.

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