Moving the needleTo move the needle on the “who gives a sh**” dial, you need to know what’s at stake.

The needle measures the emotional stakes raised by your messagingas perceived by your audience.  If you don’t address, reference, or touch upon what’s at stake, little else matters.

Getting in shape or getting stronger may be a product benefit for an exercise program, but that’s not what’s at stake for the prospective customer.  In order to understand what’s at stake, you have to contextualize the desire for the product within the life of the prospect.

What A Charles Atlas Ad Can Teach You About Moving the Needle

Atlas-Mac-adA perfect example of contextualizing desire is the classic Charles Atlas ads created by Charles P. Roman.  Getting publicly humiliated in front of your girlfriend while she watches a bully kick sand in your face puts a completely different spin on “working out” than heart-health and longevity doesn’t it?

Now we know what’s at stake: the prospect’s manhood.  Hence the power of the famous headline: “The Insult that Made a Man Out of Mac”

Do you see how much more emotionally galvanizing that headline is compared to a garden-variety pitch about the strength building benefits of “dynamic tension” workouts?

This old comic book ad is a wonderful example not only because of the searing mental imagery, but because it provides the first secret key:

Key #1 – The stakes are always about the customer’s self-identity; will he maintain and grow his self-image/ego or will he suffer in the face of adverse reality?

And the second secret key follows on from the first one, because if what’s at stake is the customer’s self image, then:

Key # 2 – The hero of the ad has to be the customer, not the product

Joe-2If the customer is the most emotionally invested in the outcome and has the power to determine the outcome, who else could possibly be the hero?

Think about that Charles Atlas Ad again: who ended up kicking butt?  Mac – the thinly veiled stand-in for the reader – was the star of the ad; he was the one who transformed himself from a 97-pound weakling into a muscle-laden stud – the product just helped him get there.

Back when Charles P. Roman penned his first Atlas Ad, there were any number of muscle men selling courses by mail order, guys like Joe Bonomo.  If that name doesn’t ring any bells for you, and you can’t recall any of the others off the top of you head, it’s largely because the other guys either made themselves or their products the star of their ads.  The Atlas Ads made the customer the hero and they’re still selling courses to this day!

Want to move the needle?

  1. Speak to customer emotions stemming from self-image.  Contextualize the desire in terms of common scenarios.  Understand what’s really at stake.
    • The feature might be an easy, learn-at-your-own-pace musical instrument course
    • The benefit might be mastering the piano in one’s spare time
    • The growth of self image might be the transformation from a musical embarrassment to an accomplished (and admired) musician
  2. Provide a searing mental image of the customer kicking butt in the role they already desire to see themselves fulfilling. Make the customer the star, not the product.


Stay tuned for the follow-up post on how Temperament Affects Self-Image


  1. William on 10.26.2009

    The Charles Atlas course is a godsend! I was 14 when I started the course and was attracted by the ads. It was then that I decided to begin my road to health. I am now 50 and still doing the Charles Atlas course! Thanks Charles! The company is still in business after 80 years! Check it out at I never needed anything but the course to work out and never will!

  2. Erotic Hypnosis for Women on 11.06.2009

    I must have bought over 200 comic books when I was a kid. I never looked at any of the advertising. To me, it was all irrelevant. Maybe that’s why I’m having such a difficult time marketing my products now.