Words carry emotion. Words like hope, freedom, desire, sale and cheap inspire emotional reactions deep in the limbic system. Given the power of these emotion associations, it’s no surprise that copywriters use them to propel people to action. Yet, there are potential pitfalls. Let’s look at how different companies are using emotional language to see what’s working and what’s not.
Be Very Afraid
If you’re looking for fear-creating copy, look no further than The Club. You’re probably already familiar with The Club steering wheel lock that prevents would-be thieves from driving away with your vehicle. The Club also markets other theft-proof devices such as The Door Club (to stop thieves from breaking down your door) and The Bike Club (to stop thieves from stealing your bike). In almost all their copy, fear is the primary motivator.
Here’s some copy from their home page:
Each of us
Has a need…
Safe & Secure
Use The Club LIne of Quality Products
in the United States
people are victimized.
Nearly 3000 motor vehicles are reported stolen.
3000 vehicle thefts per day!
There are some simple safety and security precautions you can take.
These law and order haikus use emotional words like need, safe, secure, victimized, stolen, thefts, simple, safety and security. The message is clear — the world is not a safe place and bad things can happen at any time. The Club is the solution.
But where do you draw the line between reasonable fear and fear mongering? If you can’t back up your fear-based copy with facts, you’re crossing the line. The Club manages to stay on the side of reasonable fear by including car theft statistics, and information about law enforcement partnership programs. These supporting facts lend credibility to their emotional copy. It takes the copy from “Aliens are coming!” territory to “Crime exists, this is what you can do.”
I’m a Bad Person, But I Want to Be Good
Guilt is a great motivator, just ask any parent. Some copywriters have learned this lesson and use guilt to motivate potential clients. This is especially prevalent in copy for charitable institutions.
Some charities employ a dash of guilt, others a bucket. Cue the 1990s and this Sally Struthers classic:
Sally Struthers — Christian Children’s Fund
Did you catch that line?
Life for Sale .75¢
The subtext is what kind of cheap, heartless person wouldn’t give .75¢ to save a child’s life?
Surely not you? The only way to prove you’re not heartless is to donate. Or change the channel.
And that is the problem with guilt marketing. Push the guilt button too hard for too long and you risk eliciting anger instead of guilt — people will ignore your copy or actively avoid it.
There’s Hope for Us Yet
Thankfully, there are other ways to motivate beyond fear and guilt, including positive emotions.
Political campaigns often use emotionally laden copy. They mix positive emotions (our candidate) and negative emotions (their candidate) to win financial support and votes.
During the 2008 US presidential race, Barack Obama’s campaign slogan employed powerful, positive language: Change We Can Believe In. Combined with the chant Yes We Can and Shepard Fairey’s posters of “Hope” and “Change,” Obama’s campaign copy was powerful, heady stuff.
Three years later, Obama’s campaign demonstrates the pitfalls of using over-the-top positive emotional language to motivate people. Today, his emotionally charged campaign stands in stark contrast to where he is now: a looming 2012 election and an approval rating of only 44%. If you use emotions to get people to act (e.g. vote for your candidate, buy your dishwashing liquid) you better make sure you deliver on expectations. Otherwise, people will be even more disillusioned than if you’d used logical arguments alone.
Who’s in Charge? I Am
Marketers also use words with emotional qualities of confidence and control to give power to copy.
One of the best examples is the web marketing copy for Viagra. You might expect Pfizer (which developed and markets Viagra) to take a “you’re suffering, we can help” approach, but Pfizer knows their target market better than that.
This is the age of taking action. And getting the answers you want. So you can get on your way.
Phrases like taking action, getting answers and get on your way paints Viagra clients as not men to be pitied, but men who are determined and ready to take charge. Pfizer takes a potentially emasculating affliction like ED and associates their product with positive emotional attributes like confidence and control. If you had symptoms of ED and were feeling disempowered, then the Pfizer copy would appeal.
As a business owner, you can employ many different emotions by using the right words in your marketing copy. There are potential pitfalls in using emotional language, but you can avoid these by understanding your objectives and your audience.
Has your company used emotional language to connect and motivate customers? What has worked? What hasn’t?