Charles Atlas and the Art of Storytelling

In the 1940’s Angelo Siciliano, aka Charles Atlas began running a series of successful ads in comic books across America. If you collected comics when you were a kid, you may remember this one.


It’s title was “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac”, or as many knew it – the 97 pound weakling ad. It told a story many adolescents could relate to at the time.

Successful Marketers are Storytellers. 

In my small business marketing meetup group this past week, we discussed “how powerful stories can be used to market products and services”.

Most marketing fails today because it doesn’t engage us with a story that relates to our worldview. A story like the “97-lb weakling ad” worked so well because it fit within the worldview of many scrawny, pimple-faced teenagers at the time.

5 Elements of a Good Story
A powerful marketing story consists of 5 main ingredients:

The Hero – The hero in every good marketing story is the customer. The customer is the one who takes center stage in your story.

The Goal – When we talk about the goal, we’re asking ourselves “How will the customer’s (hero) life improve?” How will it be changed for the better?

The Conflict – The conflict is always the object that stands between your hero and their goal. Every great story has a conflict. Think of your favorite movie, and you’ll find a conflict that keeps the main character from achieving success.

The Mentor – The mentor is the one that helps the hero overcome the conflict. Your product or service is the wise mentor who helps the customer overcome the obstacle and achieve the goal.

The Moral – Lastly the moral presents the lesson from the story. It tells you why the hero succeeded at the end and what you too must do if you want to succeed just like our hero did.

From this structure, we should be able to identify right away who the hero is in the Charles Atlas ad. It’s Mac right? He’s the customer. He’s the one who has a conflict to overcome -getting bullied because he’s too skinny to defend himself or the girl he’s with.

The goal for as he says in the ad is to “stop being a scarecrow”.

The mentor in the ad is the Charles Atlas and his guide to “Building Muscles Through Dynamic Tension”. Once Mac decides to invest in a mentor, his life changes. He gets bigger and stronger. Then he goes back the beach and pummels the bully.

From a simple story like this, it was pretty easy for every skinny high school kid at that time to identify the moral – “If I want to be a real man, I need to get get this free guide” (Which sold his paid course… of course).

Atlas hired ad man Charles Roman to create and entire series of these 97-lb weakling ads and was so impressed with his work, that he offered him half of his company on condition that he run the ad campaign.

Just like in the 1940’s, simple ads like this can work today when we create compelling stories that our target audience can relate to. Think about this when you structure your promotion videos and sales copy today.

If he were alive today, Charles Roman would have probably used a powerful video to tell the story of “Mac”. But he’d be a “live action hero”, not a comic character; and the mentor would be available in a free PDF report delivered instantly from a website signup.

Forget the postage stamp.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.