Advertising lessons I learnt from my first Mills and Boons

by in advertising, advertising agencies, Branding, Brands 

So at the age of 24, I finished reading my first Mills and Boons (M&B) titled ‘Rebel without a bride’

– by Catherine Leigh.

Now I know why this romance imprint of British Publisher Harlequin UK Ltd has been such a hit with the girls for more than a hundred years (It was founded in 1908 btw) and still continue to do so. 

To be honest the story consumed me. It may be because the female protagonist, Thea Birch was a 24 year old colonel’s daughter (like me) whose life until then was spent living like the ideal daughter to her father. A more probable reason could be because the romance was totally based on a general woman’s fantasy of falling in love with a hot rebel of a bad boy and then turning him good.

Rebel without a Bridge

All in all, one reads in it of an ideal world – where a woman could be full of lust for a man who is a damn attractive social pariah while at the same time being able to keep a respectful image in a Victorian like society.  Her character is portrayed as a confused and fearful little baby, in the sense an average woman would connect to and imagine being her. Furthermore, she is shown as fulfilling all her dreams of getting her own little B&B business and winning the love of her long time childhood crush, the elusive, rich and handsome Damon Free.

Now even though M&B has been known to churn out pretty formulaic themes and standard novels yet they can beautifully transport a female to her ideal world. Not a bad thing every once in a while. (Read – reason behind M&B’s tremendous and long lived success)

 As advertising is increasingly becoming more of story-telling hence as an advertiser, one could surely learn a thing or two from the unique brand of stories that M&B sells. So here are some of these much rummaged through lessons for our good ad selves:

Understand your audience

The Mills and Boons understood clearly what most women secretly wish for – to make a rich and handsome brat fall in love with them so that they could ‘improve’ him. The compelling need for a woman to be needed, ironically by a strong man (money, muscles, mind, power) is what M&B likes to flavor its stories with. They give a woman what she wants. And what do they get in return? Millions and Millions of women all over the world drooling over their books. Nice na.

Advertisers could learn from this that to sell any product the target audience’s psychology must be at the core of any ad campaign. Like say, you are selling men’s deodorant. Now think about what do most men desire. Science tells us power and women.

Which is prettier of the two? Women obviously! And what is that your product can get them? Women obviously! The Axe brand with it’s The Axe Effect tag line has done it so profitably well in all this time. Their ads not so subtly give the signal that men using the Axe deodorant get scores of women, easily. 

The AXE Effect Advertising

By actually making an effort to understand your audience and connecting their needs and wants with the product, you gently let them know that you care about them and so does your product.

You crave sales but don’t make that obvious

Thea Birch seems to be apparently more focused on renovating her dead aunt’s home for her B&B business rather than running after the wildly attractive Damon Free. This aspect of her behavior gets not only gives her increased credibility but also earns her respect from her town, Damon Free as well as the readers. Temptations seemed to take a back seat and the common good was sought.

The ad lesson here is that it is always a better idea to put the focus on the customer’s well being and goodness rather than on the sales and Call to Action. Your ads must create value for the customers – maybe inform or educate or even inspire them before it subtly yet actively reminds them to make a purchase.

Dove’s ‘You are more beautiful than you think’ campaign worked exactly on this lesson by making women feel beautiful with the bodies that they have while subtly telling them that they could have a great skin by using their product. This hugely successful campaign shot up the brand value of Dove and told scores of women that s great skin (through the use of Dove, of course) is beautiful no matter how your face looks like otherwise.

DOVE Advertising

Be a little suggestive

Make your ads a little bit suggestive – not more. Just a little bit, enough to arouse imaginations and interest but leaving it immediately at that. This rule must be used carefully as it can backfire too at times. At no point must your ad look crazy or cheap. Also keep in mind the regional sensibilities while going for this lesson.

In the book ‘Rebel without a bride’ just when the book started wearing off the reader in the middle, there’s a scene where the hot Damon splits apart Thea’s knees to move in to kiss her. The description of the scene is too graphic and yes, it does pique up the reader’s interest.

An example of this could be seen in this ad for breast cancer awareness by Max Health care – the copy declares boldly, If only women paid as much attention to their breasts, as men do.


Breast Cancer Advertising

Tease works like a charm

My favorite line in the book, which is also present in its prologue, is when Thea Birch sees a fierce tattoo of a wild bear on Damon’s bare back. She asks him about it and he tells her a bit about it being connected to his depressing past. She then tells him not to fight so hard to which he lifts one bronze, naked shoulder and says, “It’s what’s inside of me…And until you think you can handle the inside you’d better keep your fingers off my outside – if you think you can.” This singular statement, while is enough to send several girls in a tizzy but we advertisers could learn how a simple line, used wittingly could actually be so powerful.

In advertising, advertisers do not create oodles of lines to talk about the goodness of their product. Just simple lines full of tease value could do the trick of intriguing the audience and getting them interested in your product.

The Burger King, late night open burger stands going by the bold line of ‘If you can’t sleep, pleasure yourself, is full of tease value for the consumer.

Burger Pleasure Preview

Talk about what people really wish for

Someone rightly said that we never really grow up; we just learn how to act in public. The inner child craves for the simple things – like humility, joy, love and freedom. Sometimes by creating such an appeal in your ad you could actually stand out from the rest and connect to the masses very well too.

The Mills and Boons books may have a raw sex appeal under the layers and layers of sweet sticky romance. But never are the girls just plain dumb – they have something of value in them, something interesting despite how average they seem to be. Thea Birch here evokes respect because of her commitment to her dreams despite all the difficulties she faces. She even seems inspiring to women readers in the sense that a woman could actually achieve anything they put their mind to, even all alone. That a woman could succeed at a career and at winning the love of her dream man. Advertisers, who hold onto a cherished ideal, can make an instant connect to the masses who feel that way too.

An example of this could be the ‘Daag acche hai’ campaign of Surf Excel. It seemed to set the inner child free by telling us that ‘stains are good’. That it offers uninhibited freedom to children and adults alike in a rule bound society, is a message that set this ad campaign apart from others.

Dogboy Fin Press

That’s all for now folks. If you think of some more interesting advertising related stuff from M&B, do let me know too. Till then, happy story telling folks! smiley


The lessons presented here were from the author’s reading of the M&B title ‘Rebel without a Bride’ by Catherine Leigh and her reading on M&B style of writing. The views presented are hers only and she must be forgiven for any hurtful generalization that she may have made. Clearly, that was not her intention.



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Aparna Ghildiyal
After working as a neuroscience researcher, Aparna renewed her love for writing by working as a content writer. Later she joined The Art of Living International Bangalore Ashram as a resident - volunteer. Her education qualification includes a Master of Science degree from BHU, one of the top central universities of India.

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