Positive versus negative copywriting

May 30, 2008 •

We all know the advertising truism: focus on the positives, not the negatives. You’ll sell more by talking up the benefits of buying, than you will by harping on the risks of not.

In his book, ‘Scientific Advertising’, legendary ad-man, Claude Hopkins, says:

“We are attracted by sunshine, beauty, happiness, health, success. Then point the way to them, not the way out of the opposite.

Picture envied people, not the envious.

Tell people what to do, not what to avoid.

Make your every ad breath good cheer…

Compare the results of two ads, one negative, one positive. One presenting the dark side, one the bright side. One warning, the other inviting. You will be surprised. You will find that the positive ad out pulls the other four to one…”

If you’ve ever wondered why, here’s one theory… It’s called ‘Prospect Theory’. Developed in 1979 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it has its roots in Behavioural Economics. Simply put, it says:

  1. give someone the choice between a guaranteed small gain and a possible large gain, and they’ll probably take the small; but
  2. give someone the choice between a guaranteed small loss and a possible large loss, and they’ll probably risk the large.

Here’s an example cited in a recent CIO article by Bruce Schneier:

“Take a roomful of subjects and divide them into two groups. Ask one group to choose between these two alternatives: a sure gain of $500 and 50 percent chance of gaining $1,000. Ask the other group to choose between these two alternatives: a sure loss of $500 and a 50 percent chance of losing $1,000.

…When faced with a gain, about 85 percent of people chose the sure smaller gain over the risky larger gain. But when faced with a loss, about 70 percent chose the risky larger loss over the sure smaller loss.”

Obviously there are limits to the theory (you wouldn’t choose a guaranteed $100 over a shot at $1million…), but as most of a copywriter’s work is done within these limits, this theory should work well for us.

In the positive v negative copywriting debate, it’s point 2 above that’s of most interest. It suggests that if you use negative copywriting, most customers will risk the impact of not buying (i.e. the possible large loss) rather than pay for your product (i.e. the guaranteed small loss).

(Point 1 above pertains, not so much to the question of WHETHER to talk up benefits, but more to the question of WHICH benefits to talk up.)

Schneier goes on to say that a possible exception to the rule occurs when you introduce true fear. People are known to do almost anything to make that feeling go away. But on this point, I’d question him. It’s true that people don’t like to feel scared. So much so, in fact, that they’ll do almost anything do avoid feeling fear, in the first place. So when you use scare tactics, people may just cover their eyes and say, “That won’t happen to me!” The infamous Australian Grim Reaper AIDS campaign is a case in point. People remember it, but it wasn’t very effective.

So if you plan to use fear, you have to be careful. It’s a fine line. Too much fear, and it may boomerang. Too little, and customers may simply see a risk worth taking in order to avoid a guaranteed smaller loss (the purchase price).

In the end, the safest bet is – surprisingly enough – to take the safe approach. Listen to Hopkins, and focus on positives. Using computer security (the subject matter discussed in the CIO article) by way of example: if your audience already accepts the need for security, focus on the quality of your particular offering (it’s speed, ease of use, comprehensiveness, etc.); but if they’re not so sure they need security, focus on the benefits of security in general (peace of mind, the comfortable feeling that you’re doing what the experts recommend, faster computing, greater uptime, etc.).

Happy writing!

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Damien wrote on August 21st, 2012

Terrific article. I've been focusing on the negative way too much in my copywriting without even really thinking about it. I'm reading the Hopkins book now so looking forward to more insights like the ones you've highlighted here. Thanks.

comment avatar
Glenn (Owner) wrote on August 21st, 2012

Yeah, it's tough isn't it, not focusing on the negative? Especially when the copy discusses how to overcome a problem. Funnily enough, I refer back to this post myself, every now and then, when I need some perspective. Thanks for reading Damien.

comment avatar
Paul Christian wrote on April 14th, 2013

Awesome article, didn't know this! I thought most peope would be 'move away from' (negative situation), instead of 'Move to' (positive situation). But I noticed in copywriting negatives aren't used as much. This explanation is a great one!

comment avatar
Glenn (Owner) wrote on April 14th, 2013

It's fascinating, isn't it?

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