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FutureNow Article
Monday, Jul. 16, 2007

Copy Perspective Monday: #6, Pain vs. Gain

By Jeff Sexton
July 16th, 2007


Don’t think of a white bear.

Are you thinking of a white bear? Stop. Don’t think of them.

Not to sound too much like the Verizon guy, but how about know? Still thinking of a white bear?

Ahhh, the power of a mental image. So what does this have to do with Perspective No. 6? (As you may recall from last week, this is a six-part series.) And why am I jumping past numbers 2 through 5? Because there are powerful reasons to evoke negative mental images in your copy, and equally powerful reasons not to — and they both involve the persistent power of white bears, er… negative images, that is.

Oh, and because Perspectives 2 and 3 provide the answers to this problem.

In his Monday Morning Memo of December 4, 2006, Roy Williams wrote that:

Happiness rarely triggers commerce. Unhappiness often does.

Purchases are triggered by dissatisfaction with the way things are. We purchase when we have a need, a desire, an itch to scratch. We want to change our condition, our surroundings, our state of mind. We buy because we are dissatisfied…

…To increase your sales volume, you must identify the dissatisfaction that lurks in the heart of your customer.

And then you must shine your flashlight of words into that darkness…

This would seem to be a powerful reason to evoke negative images in your copy: remind the buyers of the itch, then present your solution as the ideal way to scratch that itch, right? Aye, there’s the rub…

Like white bears or WMDs, negative images persist. And it’s somehow easier to create powerful negative images than it is to produce powerful positive images.

Emotionally speaking, worries trump daydreams.

Worse, most copywriters create a powerful negative image and then try to counter it with a logical or syntactical argument. Which is kind of like letting a skunk loose at work and trying to keep the smell away from your desk with a cubicle partition.

As an example, a copywriter just can’t get away with something like:

“Having trouble getting to a second or third date? It could be your facial acne – now you can get rid of painful acne with Wonder-X!”

What do you think is going to be associated with Wonder-X: the cure, or the painful emotions stirred up by the copy?

Dismissing a logical argument from the mind is all too easy. It’s why rationalizations work. The good angel on your shoulder gnashes his teeth at that all too often, doesn’t he? Mine sure does.

But a powerful mental image is almost impossible to dismiss.

So, does that mean you should always go with gain over pain? With positive mental images rather than negative? Frankly, no. It means:

  • that negative mental images are extremely powerful;
  • that they have to be used with restraint;
  • that sometimes it’s better to hint-at or suggest the negative than to address it directly.
  • (and, most importantly) that negative images ALWAYS have to be countered with a more powerful positive image and never with logic or syntax alone.

In fact, psychologists have done research on white bears (really!), and the only way not to think of a white bear is to consciously think of something else. As the copywriter, you must provide something else that’s sticky enough to effortlessly displace the negative image you created.

How do you do that? Well, you have 3 choices:

  1. Don’t use negatives at all; only talk about the positive. Depending on your product, this might be the smartest move of all. Of course, depending on your product (insurance?), this might not be an option at all, either.
  1. Only hint at the negative (e.g., “Because so much is riding on your tires.”)
  1. Modulate the intensity and vividness of a negative image to ensure it doesn’t overwhelm your copy and that you can easily replace it with your more powerful, positive mental image.

And how do you modulate an image’s intensity and vividness? With perspectives 2 and 3. But that’s for another post…

Catch me next week when I show how it’s done.

[*Editor's note: This is actually the second part of our Copy Perspective Monday series. Make sure to read part one and its follow-up if you missed them. Follow along as Jeff Sexton, Future Now copywriting instructor and Persuasion Architect, guides you through an in-depth perspective on the six copy perspectives. You can also read more posts from Jeff at his personal blog]

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Comments (16)

  1. “and it’s follow up if you missed them.”

    Wouldn’t complain about typos in any other forum, but a copywriters blog?

  2. Bob,

    Good catch. It takes a village, especially when the editor wakes up at 5am. ;)


  3. Great topic! We had debated at our fitness equipment company whether or not to use negative images (pictures of fat people), your article really helped with that… the only way to counter a picture of a fat person is with a gorgeous fitness model- something people see everywhere, so it would not be powerful enough to counter the “white bear” (fat image), and therefore a bad idea…am I right?

  4. Great article. I will surely refer to it when I’m copywriting in the future.

    One thing: “Not to sound too much like the Verizon guy, but how about know?”

    Surely you mean “now” correct?

  5. [...] note: Fans of Copy Perspective Monday may notice that the would-be final installment, #6, came before #5. To understand the madness to his method — or is that the other way around? [...]

  6. What about outlining features that a product DOES NOT have? Assuming you have a target audience that you know will consider these missing features a definite benefit. For instance, 35mm camera manufacturer marketing to parents of young beginning photographers as well as Seniors who are not sold on digital photography. “No complicated menus” and “No computer required”. Would this be considered a negative?

    Thanks for your help.

  7. Hi Jeff – my mom is 87 and still very much on her own, but every time I think about that it has been a while since I called (or visited), I STILL recall an old AT&T ad that shows a mom (my mom?) sitting there alone, looking at the phone, hoping her son will call. Rats — that ad is probably over ten years old, and it STILL gives me the big-time guilties.

  8. John,

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think Pain is probably too broad of a term. What normally hurts copy is the use of fear or sadness. These are depressive emotions that hinder action on the part of your reader. But anger and guilt or disgust do the opposite – they lead to a strong bias for action. Plus the intensity of these emotions make them highly memorable (as you’ve experienced with the AT&T ad).

    What I find with a lot of very successful pain-based copy is that it normally breaks down into surprise + anger or surprise + disgust and almost never fear or sadness.

    Hope that helps

    - Jeff

  9. [...] how to convert a visitor in under 8 seconds. A strong mental image is achieved by choosing the best copy perspective for your message.  Did you miss the copy perspective series by copywriter and copywriting [...]

  10. I totally agree. Why to people spook? Tell them positive information and offered value ;-)

  11. [...] convertir un visiteur en moins de 8 secondes. Une forte image mentale est assurée par le choix de la meilleure mise en perspective de votre message. A ce sujet, retrouvez la série des meilleures techniques de mises en [...]

  12. [...] 2. First Mental Image – Usually your headline and how it relates to the first few sentences and your first image if you have one. FutureNow has many insights about a powerful first mental image. [...]

  13. I can say I learned a lot from this stuff.We should not forget that the ability to “see” without seeing, known as mental imagery, can be used as a way to improve athletic performance, to instill positive thinking, and to treat the symptoms of certain mental conditions.

  14. I am really very musk impressed with this great article. Thanks for sharing.

  15. I agree with the fact that often negative images often encourage ation.However, the key is to do this in a way that shows empathy and understanding. everything has to be thought of from a customer/client viewpoint, and often sitting down and writing a diary of a typical day of a customer helps with this.
    So as a Personal Trainer I empathise (in copy) with the fact that it’s common for people to find it difficult to motivate themselves and that they are not alone.

    Anyway, great article that gets you thinking about how best to engage with potential customers.

  16. we often see the use of negative images to ‘stop’ us buying a product these days e.g. cigarette packets, ut using negative images to make us buy is a difficult route to go down.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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