The 7 Deadly Sins of Marketing
A veteran wordsmith unburdens himself of the terrible things he’s done in the name of selling people things they didn’t need. A dark night of the soul indeed.
I started copywriting at an agency when I was 18 and I was quite certain I was a genius. If there was a god of copywriting, I was sure it was shining its heavenly light on my career.
Fortunately, my megalomaniac boss beat that attitude out of me with outright cruelty, public humiliation and loud rejections. When he threw a substandard copy deck back at my face (literally), he made sure the whole agency enjoyed the spectacle.
But it was tough love. He was instilling some much-needed humility. I’d waltzed in like the prodigal son without ever doing a single iota of research on my chosen profession. That ogre of a man made it clear that if I ever wanted to write a tagline, I’d need to delve into the science of copy.
Firstly I read books by Herschell G. Lewis who was not only the king of direct marketing of the era but also the Godfather of Gore, having created the splatter film genre. That was no surprise because I’d already begun to see the connection between copywriting and the devil. To be a good copywriter, I had to become the little bastard that sits on your left shoulder—your cheeky, bright-red, horny manipulator.
Suddenly the science of copy clicked. I stopped trying to convince target audiences that products were great. The consumers already wanted the products; they just needed to be reminded of the reason. As the Herschell G. Lewis quote goes, ‘Those who are most able to buy what you have to sell… demand that you agree with them’.
I noticed the entire list of positive emotions could generally be wiped from the list of motivators. They were bit players in our production of need and, more importantly, want. A consumer might claim a virtue was the reason for purchasing a product, but the positive emotions were usually afterthoughts and justifications.
The most effective triggers were the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Guilt and fear were also noteworthy because they are effective by-products of sin.
That was no surprise because I’d already begun to see the connection between copywriting and the devil.
And here’s where the psychology of copywriting becomes interesting. Point the microscope in the right direction and you can cut through the veneer to see how copy manipulates.
Do you spoil your partner because you love them, or because you want to increase their love for you? How many roses have been sold by lust? Isn’t the quality of a Mother’s Day gift determined by guilt?
Once you begin to harness the power of sin, you can raise the level of sophistication to craft copy that works on multiple levels - whether your work in advertising, marketing, content marketing or any of the associated disciplines.
The fitness industry is primed for duality. My favourite tagline is Nike’s ‘Just do it’. It’s a work of genius with multiple triggers.
The little red devil tells you pride (vanity) and envy (competition) are positives while the angel is recruited to make you feel guilty about being a couch potato. Anyone who lets the words sink in is affected. Of course, there are some people who will be so overwhelmed by emotion that they may simply give up and dig into a tub of chocolate chip ice-cream. Ah well, we’ll call them collateral damage.
As a consumer, admitting to the effect of this technique is difficult, but as a copywriter it’s critical to success.
Pride sells cars, not only by affecting your self-perception but also the attitude of your children. Greed sells marketing, which sells more greed. Lust sells porn, exercise equipment and, well, everything else. Envy sells tech – see the war between Samsung and iPhone.
Gluttony can sell virtually anything to the rich. Wrath is the weakest trigger but is essential for the collection of donations and the promotion of politics. As for sloth, it explains nearly every TV ad featuring actors on a couch and usually inspires two words: ‘Fuck it’.
As our species plummets into a deep pit of unprecedented narcissism, and need is replaced by want, once again we can say greed is good. And every time you feel the pangs of self-indulgence, you’ll find the devil in the detail: the copywriter.
We’re just using a little bit of hell to make your life heaven, and possibly getting paid handsomely for tempting you. Not that gluttony is our motivator of course. We do it for love.