Should copywriters be ‘politically correct’?

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.

Did you know that you can get this kind of copywriting education in the S.S. Treasure Hunt, my membership for fast moving copywriters?

My unique copywriting course — the Marlow Method™ “Earn While You Learn” Copywriting Course — lets you build a copywriting piece you’ll actually use in your marketing. How’s that for valuable!

You can take the course on your own for just $35 per month, or you can coach with me one-on-one. Details on that inside the S.S. Treasure Hunt.

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!

© 2016 Chris Marlow, All Rights Reserved

About Chris Marlow

The original copywriter's coach, Chris Marlow has worked with copywriters since 2003. Her acclaimed Marlow Marketing Method™ Client Acquisition Course has produced hundreds of successful copywriters. Chris' S.S. Treasure Hunt membership site not only houses this course but four more on the subjects of Copywriting, Advanced Copywriting, Productivity, and Closing Clients. The S.S. Treasure Hunt also contains the world's only statistical pricing database for about 100 copywriting jobs. Chris has put together this resource to give copywriters everything they need to succeed — and nothing they don't. Chris is committed to helping copywriters focus on what's important, saving them from the time- and money-wasting Bright Shiny Object Syndrome so prevalent on the Internet.

8 Responses to Should copywriters be ‘politically correct’?

  1. Ron Warne January 7, 2017 at 8:26 am #

    I think the term “politically correct ” which has at least some of it’s origins in actual politics, will take on new meaning as to how we even use that term in the future given the new “commander and chief” that is about to step in.

  2. Barbara Hales December 7, 2016 at 6:10 am #

    Smooth transition between story & call to action! Everybody- take note!

    • Chris Marlow December 7, 2016 at 8:41 am #

      Thank you Barbara! Some copywriters I know think that transition are a PITA. Sometimes they can really make you work hard, especially in long form B2C. But I’ll take a compliment from you any day!

  3. Ash Waechter December 7, 2016 at 5:04 am #


    Great post!

    I think you’re selling yourself short by saying, “Negative (WANTED) produced nearly 4 percent more sales than positive (LADDER) did” when the real story is that the negative letter got nearly100% (or nearly double) more responses than the positive.

    • Chris Marlow December 7, 2016 at 8:40 am #

      Yes, it would be much better copy Ash… the negative concept brought nearly 11 percent response while the positive concept brought nearly 7, so it’s not quite double but close enough to encourage an intrepid copywriter to find ways to really play up the difference!

  4. Nan Devlin December 6, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    I worked in the catalog business for a long time as a copywriter, and we did a benefits approach – solving a problem. In one spread, we had several organizer products – but just plain “get yourself organized” sounds like a horrible chore. Since our target audience was women with kids, I wrote a banner headline that read: “Save precious time in the morning by getting organized tonight.” It was the best selling spread in the catalog that season. We pushed a button that harried, busy moms faced every morning, and yet kept the organization chore within a specific time period.

    • Chris Marlow December 6, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

      Nice! Of course it all depends on the target market and the product. You can use a fear sell when you’re selling insurance, but not when you’re selling toys LOL

      • Chris Marlow December 6, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

        I’ll bet that headline could be used every year, or some variation of that.

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