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 ; )

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