Given the rise of the “PC culture” over the last decade, a copywriter might wonder to what degree — if any — it might influence their copy.
Because the “word police” have been around for a long time; it’s just that being freelance, I’ve been able insulate myself from it.
This topic does bring back an awful time in my life as a copywriter employee, however.
In an effort to become more politically correct, our direct response agency hired a general manager who sent shock waves through each department by mandating that from now on, “all copy will be written with a positive slant.”
This had every copywriter and designer open-mouthed and bug-eyed. Where had this yokel come from? How could the agency president hire this complete idiot? Everyone knew that writing to the negative sells more… everyone.
So I marched into the president’s office and had a mini-meltdown, just this side of getting fired myself. Richard placated me and shushed me out, but I could tell he was perplexed. He’d gotten himself into a real pickle. If this new guy didn’t know the first thing about direct response marketing — that negative sells — he’d need to be fired about as quickly as he’d been hired.
If memory serves me, the guy was gone a couple of weeks later along with his stupid idea. Because you see, a negative approach in copy (e.g., get rid of a fear), is almost always more powerful than a positive approach (e.g., buy this and become happier).
It’s not mysterious. It’s just human psychology. We are simply more motivated to get rid of pain than we are to find more happiness.
At our agency (known then as Rosen/Brown), we enjoyed doing A/B tests to re-prove what we already knew. Besides, it’s just smart to keep testing the common wisdoms, to make sure nothing has changed.
Perhaps because of the recent brouhaha with Mr. Hired-Then-Fired, we got one of our clients, Tektronix, to agree to a split test to test negative copy against positive. Tektronix sells color printers.
For both concepts the format was direct mail in an oversized 9 x 12 envelope. All components were the same… the only difference was the concept. For the positive concept, I came up with the idea that if you use a Tektronix color printer in your presentations, you’ll climb the corporate ladder.
For an involvement device, we even had cut outs of a ladder and a man and a woman, sort of like paper dolls. Every time the prospect used color in their presentations, they could climb one rung of the ladder.
For the negative concept, I came up with an image of a corporate type behind bars for making a BORING presentation. Of course the copy on the letters and reply device in both packages heavily supported their concepts.
So how did they do?
Negative (WANTED) produced nearly 4 percent more sales than positive (LADDER) did… but hey, they both did great. Negative came in at a 10.56 percent response rate while positive brought a respectable 6.73.
So if you didn’t already know that negative sells better than positive, now you do. That’s why every time I sit down with a new copywriting job, I look for the negative. Is there a pain I can make go away? A fear I can remove? A problem I can solve?
Now let me ask you a few questions.
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So have you had any politically correct moments in your copywriting career? If so, I’d love to hear them. Please share in the comment section below!
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