crybaby crying kid cry tear tears Above the Law blogIn response to last Friday’s post, I reader asked me to elaborate on the following Roy H. Williams quote:

“[You] can’t sell happiness unless UNHAPPINESS is the default option.”

And to do that, I’d like to combine that with a quote from the opening paragraph of Breakthrough Advertising, written by the legendary Eugene Schwartz:

“Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copywriters task: not to create this mass desire – but to channel and direct it.” [Emphasis in original]

When Roy tells us that you can’t sell happiness unless unhappiness is the default option, he is essentially telling us that the desire for your solution has to already exist. You have to be answering a question that people are already asking.

No matter how much people may desperately need your product (according to you, at least), if they don’t FEEL as if they need what you sell and they don’t generally WANT what you sell, then you’ve got a product that advertising won’t help you sell.

Why Desire Trumps Need

My favorite illustration of this comes from this Calvin and Hobbes strip wherein Calvin attempts to sell a “swift kick in the butt” for $1 and can’t figure out why business is so slow when everybody he knows needs what he’s selling.

So if desire trumps need, the question becomes: how can you desire what you already have? Answer: you can’t.  You can’t possibly feel the want of something – can’t feel “in need of it” – if you already have it. If you’re selling “health” the person has to feel as if they don’t currently HAVE health. They have to have a health problem.

So where does this put preventatives like vitamins and exercise and such? Easy: these things are sold either as:

  1. The cure to a health problem – People start taking vitamins and supplements and exercise because they feel as if they’re fat or can’t keep up with their kids or have high cholesterol or joint pain, and so on.
  2. A way to regain something that’s already been lost, i.e., Youth – Most supplements and exercise programs are sold as anti-aging or youth-restoration solutions to people who feel that they are rapidly losing their youth.
  3. A way to gain an edge over the competition – selling performance rather than health.

This is why Roy also specifically addresses selling health in this quote (also taken from Friday’s post):

“PROBLEM: Selling health is a bad idea. Most people already have health. If they keep their health, they’re not going to give you any credit for that. Health isn’t measurable unless you’re currently sick and this regimen cures you. As I said before, weight loss and body shape are measurable. Does this program accomplish those things?”

What to do when unhappiness isn’t the default option

So if unhappiness isn’t already recognized as the default option, the copywriter/advertiser has to do one of two things:

  1. Find at least one aspect of the product or service that customers are NOT happy with and use your copy to agitate that problem, or
  2. Connect a problem or unhappiness they currently have to the product or service they are currently using.

Infomercials are infamous for this. A chef’s knife is a perfectly adequate solution to the challenge of dicing up fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. But in unskilled hands, it’s not nearly as fast as a Slap Chop. So the Slap Chop infomercial has to make that into a BIG DEAL by:

  • Comically exaggerating the difficulty and time requirements of chopping with a knife.
  • Tying the customer’s current lack of healthy, delicious, and interesting foods and snacks in their diet to the inability to quickly chop foods.

Watch the video and you’ll see exactly what I mean when you hear phrases like: “You know you hate making salads, that’s why you don’t have any salad in your diet” and “Stop having boring tuna; stop having a boring life.” No slap chop = unhappiness as the default option my friend 😉

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  1. Ryan Spanger on 11.10.2010

    Really enjoyed reading your article, Jeff. You make your point well.

    Of course, sometimes advertisers take it to the next level and seek to actively promote and instil an unhappy disposition in their audience. They can then return to their own default position: selling happiness.
    .-= Ryan Spanger´s last blog ..Unlearn =-.

  2. Ellie Yamane on 11.10.2010

    People want to avoid pain more than attain pleasure. If you don’t establish the problem, they’ll never buy what you have to offer even if they need it. When I’m talking to my prospects, I always ask questions and try to identify their problems. Nice article.
    .-= Ellie Yamane´s last blog ..Facebook Marketing Lesson- Fix Your Thumbnail =-.

  3. Jeff on 11.10.2010


    Yup, advertising has absolutely been blamed (and rightly so, I think) for creating anxieties in people in order to sell product. Do you have BO? Are you thin enough? Is that a zit on your face? That sweater is so last season! And so on. The pharmaceutical industry even has a process of “First You Invent The Disease” in order to market drugs meant to cure it. They do this because it works.


    Thanks for commenting. I find that (good) salespeople are almost always locked onto these psychological realities. Far more so than most marketers and even a fair few copywriters.

    – Jeff

  4. dirt on 11.10.2010

    I knew a great salesman how told me the basics of selling are …

    Create a problem … then Solve that problem.

    Sometimes I think business people forget this and will put the Solution in front of the Horse. They are so enamored with the solution they forget to define the problem … and visa-versa.

    And then there is Apple … they just keep “OutCooling” themselves.

  5. Martin Stellar on 11.14.2010

    Apple is actually a really interesting example. They somehow manage to create a desire for their new coolness every time they develop a new product. Not having it means unhappiness because you would not be as cool as the others. Pretty nifty.
    .-= Martin Stellar´s last blog ..Ethics in marketing Really =-.

  6. Ahmed on 11.14.2010

    Nice post! I agree to a certain extent.

    I do believe that we always want more. So even if we are healthy, we want to be MORE healthy. We are rich, we want to be MORE rich. We are happy, we want to be MORE happy.

    The key is keeping it at a want, and not making it into a need.

    Thanks for the read!
    .-= Ahmed´s last blog ..How to Use the Overload Principle to Bring a Load of Success into Your Life =-.

  7. Sven on 11.14.2010

    @Martin, you’re talking about creating a desire. But I think it’s not about creating, but actually showing people they HAVE that desire.

    In Apple’s case, they show people the downsides of social exlusion (implicit) and the desire to not be exluded.

  8. Julie Hall on 11.15.2010

    Brilliant article Jeff – “focus those already existing desires onto a particular product” This is the key that most small businesses forget – it starts with knowing your customer’s pain – If small business owners just to spent their time thinking about or learning about this it would make a big difference to the products they make and how they market their business.

    …and btw thanks for the slapchop commercial – I want one 🙂

  9. Jeff on 11.15.2010


    Yup. When you’re introduced to something that makes your old options seem cruddy in comparison, you instantly become unhappy with your old stuff. The reason that so many new and improved whatevers fail is that there is no noticeable difference when using them. They don’t make you unhappy with whatever you’re currently using, so you don’t buy.

    One of the things that Gillette does brilliantly is to make sure their new razors are always markedly better than their old ones. It’s never a slight difference. It’s always a blow you away difference that almost forces you to pony up for the new system/razors. Internally, I think they have 21 measures of shaving excellence and a new razor technology has to provide a certain level of improvement on something like 18 of them in order to get released to the public. So Gillette actually TURNS DOWN the ability to release new improvements in order to maintain that high level of contrast between old and new razors.

    This same contrast is also why it can be so painful to be exposed to great wine, gourmet coffee, etc. – because it takes the quality you had been (pretty much) satisfied with and ruins it for you. You become trapped into paying for the good stuff or suffering through your old, now-crappy stuff ; )