Truism #1: If people see it coming, the transformational moment — the moment when a character moves past his primary fears, block, wound, or limitation — will fail to create maximum emotion in the reader because it’ll get dampened or squashed by the audience’s psychological defenses.
Truism #2: If the transformational moment isn’t properly set up, and instead the writer just launches into high drama on the page, the scene won’t be believable and it will fall emotionally flat for the reader.
Here’s an example of this second truism from the movie, Zombieland:
***Warning — Movie Spoilers Ahead*****
There’s emotion on the screen, duly portrayed by Woody Harrelson, but it never really touches the audience. The flashback, in fact, feels a bit off. Who feeds their dog pancakes or lifts them up and bathes them like that? But then again, Woody’s character is a bit “off,” so the viewer (or this viewer at least) let’s the disconnects slide.
And that’s the genius of this scene. Because as the movie goes on and the audience gets tied up in the more exciting aspects of zombie bashing, they forget all about that disconnect until the writer springs this scene on them:
After watching that scene, it dawned on me that the audience wasn’t meant to feel emotion in the first scene: it was just the set-up for this second scene in a way that would keep the audience from “bracing” against the emotion. Hence the “narrative misdirection” of the puppy flashback.
That undetected set-up makes all the difference because we, the audience, were taken in along with the Greg Eisenberg’s character, “Columbus.” So we felt Columbus’s insight and empathy as our own. It transfered right from the screen to our chests.
Better yet, while the audience was caught up in the emotion of that scene, the writer set us up for this bit of dialogue:
Brilliant, huh? We see the nihilistic loner confront his loss and then overcome his isolation. And it feels real. In fact, the emotion and drama works quite well for an otherwise silly comedy.
Copywriting Techniques to Take Away From All This
First of all, the copywriting equivalents of these techniques probably require a “don’t try this at home, kids” style warning, because they are in direct contradiction to standard: “hit ‘em as hard as you can with a WIIFM Appeal and UVP statement right off the bat”-style copywriting advice. Advice which I normally endorse as sound practice, by the way.
But these techniques and examples DO work when done right and are worth studying and thinking about. So with that caveat, here’s what I have seen used:
1) Sometimes the indirect approach works better. As I wrote earlier, most copywriters want to go in with guns a’ blazin’, spewing high-voltage WIIFM and UVP statements along with emotional problem-agitation-focused copy. But sometimes a slower start works to your advantage by allowing you to set-up your dramatic moments and power statements.
So long as your copy is interesting and is subtle in its set-ups, this indirect approach can massively outpull regular “reason-why” style copy. For example, here’s how the famous Wall Street Journal copy starts:
“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men.
Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike.
Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.”
With the tale eventually leading up to this power statement:
“The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.
And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.”
Can you imagine the fall off in response if the copywriter had skipped the set-up and just launched into the power statement? Can you imagine the U.S. School of Music correspondence course deciding a straight offer would work better than the immortal opening of “They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!-”
And then there’s this bit of direct mail masterpiece that continues to work so well a recent copy just arrived in my inbox today:
You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.
The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.
A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.
For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.
But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!
Dear ETR Reader,
I’d like to send you a FREE copy of a unique–and invaluable–report. It’s called How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. And it tells you about the best places in the world for retirement living.
Again, imagine how much less effective the straight offer of “Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day” would have been. No set-up, no emotional punch.
And while I’ll be the first to admit that readers are more suspicious of set-ups and more time sensitive than ever before, the continued use of this e-mail proves it still pulls. Trust me, if the direct mail superstars of Early to Rise had tested something better, they’d be using it.
2) Reference your prospect’s “photo in a wallet” symbolism to leverage otherwise unavailable emotions. Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, wasn’t planning on helping rescue the two girls. He needed to be convinced. But rather than launch into a rational argument, or a straightforward WIIFM-style appeal, the “Columbus” character clothed his appeal in the talismanic image of Tallahassee’s only keepsake from his lost son. And it worked.
I guarantee you that your prospect’s likely have a “wallet picture” type of mental image, some symbol, keepsake, or event that powerfully embodies and evokes their emotional stakes. If you wish to give your copy greater emotional impact, find out what that talisman-like symbol is, and create mental images that take advantage of that symbolism. Examples of this abound, but perhaps the most famous is Michelin’s tagline:
Before this Michelin ad, no one really cared about small quality differences between tire brands. The “wallet picture” imagery Michelin employed changed all that.
So while these techniques probably aren’t for beginning copywriters, they are worth thinking about. They’re worth practicing. And — if and when you nail it — they’re worth using.
Many have probably already seen this video of Taylor Mali’s slam poetry classic, Totally Like Whatever, You Know? But how could I not reference it after my previous post on passionate copy. So here it is — enjoy:
I know because my copy drafts sometimes suffer from the same problem.
As a reaction against the hard-sell, yellow-highlighter copy abhorred by most Web 2.0 types, we sometimes adopt an “it’s either demonstrable in no-big-deal language, or it’s not worth selling” attitude.
And that’s fine if you’ve got a freemium pricing model and are selling people on something obviously super-cool like Screenr. In that case, just demonstrating the product in the video is enough.
But what happens when demonstration isn’t so easy? Does your aversion to hype keep you from writing effective “this is important, darn it” copy?
What happens when the product is life changing or exactly what the prospect needs and you have to motivate the prospect with the image of a future state of happiness? Or through the mental image of where they’re currently heading if they don’t take action? Could the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future have persuaded with a genteel approach, or did confronting Scrooge require more drama than that?
The Difference Between Hype and Genuinely Passionate Copy
So am I advocating hype? No. The difference between the sort of chest-thumping copy that you should avoid and the too-important-to-be-polite (TITBP) copy radiates from the emotions behind it. What passion powers the copy and what’s the emotional stance toward the reader?
- Powered by pride and a we-we focus, chest-thumbing copy presumes to win the girl prospect over through sheer self-confidence and smooth lines.
- Powered by love/concern/anger-at-the-stupidity-of others/raw passion, the too-important-to-be-polite copy is on a mission to burst into the restaurant and say the scary truth no matter what, even if it means losing the girl prospect (or at least the wrong prospect).
In other words, too-important-to-be-polite copy overcomes the author’s fear of making a scene. To quote Charles Baxter in The Art of Subtext:
“If good manners comprise the code of behavior that renders our behavior acceptable and thus almost invisible in polite society, bad manners make us visible, for good or ill. We become a spectacle. Bad manners put us on a stage, and a stage, as every writer knows, is what is required for dramatic force.
…we create a scene when we forcibly illustrate our need to be visible to others, often in the service of a wish or demand we wish to impose. Creating a scene is thus the staging of a desire.”
If the desire you are staging is simple greed, then your bad behavior will not only be impolite, but genuinely unpleasant, in the worst of the yellow-highlighter tradition.
But if the desire you stage is to reach your real audience and to improve their life with your product or service, or to keep them from making a stupid mistake — well, the right audience will respond to your passion by pulling out their credit cards.
A Perfect Example of Making A Scene
This week’s Monday Morning Memo is a perfect example of TITBP copy. The memo retains the outline of a low-key presentation:
- here’s the problem the course is addressing,
- here’s who’ll come teach it and why you’ll want to hear what they have to say, and
- here’s why you’ll want to register early
But quite apart from the low-key tone of the rest of the Memo, the highlighted paragraphs are passionately and forcefully worded. The author clearly believes it’s in your best interest to attend and he’s not afraid to create a scene in order to convey that — even if the “scene” is hypothetical and staged only in your mind’s eye:
If you’re a marketing professional who believes you’re far too savvy to be fooled by data, we beg you NOT to bring a client with you to this class. Our goal is to lift your understanding to a higher level. This will happen. You will learn astounding new things. Valuable new things. Revolutionary new things. We don’t want to create a situation where you feel a need to defend your old ideas. If you bring a client, it’s going to be awkward when some of your old beliefs are disproven.
Roy’s also not afraid to plainly state the scarcity of rooms available, either. Again, it’s in the reader’s best interest to act now rather than later, so he says so, with conviction.
This, of course, applies to more than just passion. It applies to drawing hard lines as well.
- Are you too genteel to provide customers with a head-to-head comparison of your product — to bluntly highlight the competitor’s deficiencies?
- Are you too inclusive to say who your product isn’t for with the kind of clarity that risks offense?
- Or is staying positive and playing nice more important than ensuring the prospect makes the right choice and you make the sale?
So, here’s the question: when the situation demands it, are you willing to make a scene with your copy? Are you recognizing when the situation demands it?
P.S. If you’re looking for a great, technique-by-technique way to put more passion and urgency into your copy, check out Dave Navarro’s translation of yellow-highlighter copy into respectful-but-urgent messaging.
Or maybe he really is brazen enough to not care if they do. Whatever the case, the e-mails I’ve been receiving from him have certainly raised my eyebrows.
Long considered the dean of hard-sell direct response copywriting, Dan Kennedy has made a career of slamming brand-based advertising, routinely calling those engaged in it, “advertising victims.”
Dan Kennedy’s “Influential Writing”
But Kennedy’s current info-product is NOT about how to write persuasive copy that sells – a skill he now considers below the skill level of “influential writing,” which is the subject of his current marketing push.
According to Kennedy, influential writing, as opposed to traditional direct response-style persuasive writing, is all about building an reputation (read, “image”) of yourself in the minds of your audience.
You can imagine how reading Kennedy’s endorsement of image-based branding sent out to his own e-mail list is a bit like Ted Haggard admitting he’s gay to his fundamentalist congregation – except Ted wasn’t nearly so brash as to come out before being caught, or to proclaim homosexuality as OK – let alone as being superior.“you gotta be kidding me” moment.
If you think I’m wrong to relate “influential writing” to branding, listen to how Kennedy’s own product copy describes influential writing as:
- Writing to ATTRACT people of the greatest monetary value to you
- Writing to CONNECT (important if you want influence, power, sustained success, secure income)
- Writing to Gain Acceptance of Advocated Positions (it’s about having people “with you” — not just selling to them)
Kennedy’s basically describing a method for creating an image of yourself as heroic, on your audience’s side, a champion against their enemies and for common, shared values. He thinks you should create a tribe and have yourself not just as the tribe’s leader, but as its icon.
Theodore Macmanus, Cadillac, and “Influential Writing”
Yet, if you replace the “you” with a product or brand, it’s pretty clear that Kennedy is talking about branding. In fact, I can think of no clearer example of “influential writing” than Theodore F McManuss’s legendary Cadillac ad, “The Price of Leadership,” a pure branding campaign if ever there was one. Here’s the copy from it:
“In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity.
Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work.
In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction.
When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be merely mediocre, he will be left severely alone — if he achieve a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging.
Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you, unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius.
Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious continue to cry out that it cannot be done.
Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountebank, long after the big world had acclaimed him its greatest genius.
Multitudes flocked to worship at the shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all.
The little world continued to protest that Fulton could not build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river to see his boat steam by.
The leader is assailed because he is the leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership.
Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy — but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant.
There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as the human passions — envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass.
And it all avails nothing.
If the leader truly leads, he remains — the leader.
Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages.
That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial.
That which deserves to live — lives.”
Remember, this was an ad placed in the Saturday Evening Post. A non-targeted, non-direct response ad. And the copy never even mentions the product.
And yet sales for Cadillac spiked and the ad was voted “The Greatest Ad of All Time” in 1948. People immediately identified with it. Elvis Presley even framed a copy of the ad and hung it in his Graceland office, and it’s been said that both Cadillac and MacManus’s agency received weekly requests for copies of the ad for 30 years following it’s initial and only run in the Saturday Evening Post.
But McManus was not just famous for that copy, he was famous for that style of copy, for being the anti-Claude Hopkins, the man who shunned reason-why advertising in favor of indirect suggestion, positioning, and, well, branding through mass media.
Here’s how MacManus summarizes his approach in his book, The Sword-Arm of Business:
“…[Cadillac’s Advertising] nearly always suggested and seldom asserted. And it dealt not so much with the Cadillac motor car as with people’s thoughts about the Cadillac motor car. It did not so much say that things were true, as it assumed them to be true… It figured that there are certain wholesome qualities all normal human beings admire, and it celebrated the presence of those qualities in the motives of the men who designed and manufactured a motor car.”
And now Dan Kennedy seems to have lifted a page or two from the MacManus playbook… But can it really be? Has Dan Kennedy actually come out of the branding closet?
In Defense of Dan
The short answer is maybe not. One of the major differences between what Dan calls influential writing vs. branding seems to be that:
- Influential writing is directed only at already existing customers, people you’ve already sold to, in an effort to increase trust and purchases
- Whereas traditional branding campaigns have used mass media to create a commonly held opinion or image of the product/company, Influential Writing is directed toward establishing the reputation of an individual. [though the previous quote, makes it clear that MacManus also used that technique as well, which he most famously did for the Dodge Brothers and for Walter Chrysler.
Moreover, Dan has, in at least one blog post, explained his distinction between branding, which he definitely recommends, and branding-only campaigns, which he believes are largely unsuitable for most small business owners.
So What’s the Final Conclusion?
Realize that when confronted with polarity, the weak student will cling to one of the poles and demonize the other, while the strong student will ponder each and harness the dynamic electricity that flows between them.
My personal opinion is that Dan Kennedy’s personal branding necessitated an anti-branding stance that he always communicated a little more forcefully than he truly believed. Dan needed an enemy to stand against and he chose branding campaigns and lack of advertising accountability as (some of) his primary enemies — again, as part of considered attempt to brand his public persona.
Now that Dan’s peeling back the techniques he’s used to brand himself all these years, he’s hoping that an alternative name for branding will keep people from seeing any discrepancies or conflicts between his persona and the branding that he’s been engaged in over the last decades or two.
Or maybe he’s just stewing for a fight — someone stupid enough to call him out it : )
What do you think?
P.S. Brian Clark’s Third Tribe is a great example of living in the dynamic flowing between the two extremes of direct response copy and community/tribe building, and a highly recommended resource as well.