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Why Most Copywriting Fails To Achieve Its Objectives: Part 2

31st October 2014 | Andy Maslen

Andy Maslen on Why Copywriters Need to Know about the 'Lizard Brain' and Get to Grips with the Fact that Emotions Drive our Decision Making

persuasive-copywriting-9780749473990-.jpgDopamine is a natural pleasure drug secreted by the brain. It is not, as far as I am aware, secreted when we listen to a PowerPoint presentation.

The part of the brain where stories work their magic is called the limbic system: it’s a collection of discrete but linked structures buried deep inside the brain just on top of the spinal cord and brain stem. It is a very primitive part of the brain, often referred to as the Lizard Brain (by popular science authors) or the Palaeomammalian Brain (by clever, real science authors). One of these structures is a tiny, almond-shaped organ called the amygdala. Its name derives from the Latin word for ‘almond’, so there you go.

The amygdala plays an important role in the fear response. Get a wobble in your gut just before you give a speech? Amygdala. Have a spider in your bath and want to flee? Amygdala. See a sabre-tooth tiger galloping in your direction with drool flying from its gaping maw and really, really want to run away? Amygdala.

Although there are plenty of emotions that guide and shape our behaviour, fear is one of the most powerful. Going back to Ug and his problems (from Part 1 of this post), they were governed by fear.

But we aren’t cave-dwellers. Surely we are governed by higher sensibilities than eat-or-be-eaten? We developed music, the Internet, Angry Birds.

That’s true. We did. With the amazing neurological architecture of our pre-frontal cortex – that squirmy, grey mass you see being eaten in zombie films, which we also invented.

However, dismiss the power of the limbic system at your peril. It’s still there, deep within the brainy skulls of neuroscientists, economists, university professors and copywriters. And it’s still doing what it always did. Responding to stories, shaping our emotions and influencing our decisions.

Let’s take a modern-day product and see how the limbic system affects the way it’s consumed. A product Og and Ug would have had little use for: the pension.

Buying a pension should be a purely rational decision. Fine. Maybe it is. (It isn’t. It’s a weighing-up of competing feelings. If the fear of dying poor is stronger than the desire to spend all our money now, we buy a pension.) Once we have made the decision to buy a pension, we have to choose a particular pension. And here’s where the power of emotion and the limbic system is seen most clearly:

Imagine a competition between five pension providers. Four take the sensible view that what people are looking for is return on investment, portfolio performance, accrued interest and <yaaawwwn> fund manager track record. One takes the unorthodox view that people are turned off by all those facts and figures and, instead, appeals directly to the customer’s emotion. It has a smiling older person look out of the ad at the reader, and beneath the photo a headline: “Hello! I’m you aged 65. Thank you for choosing an Acme Pension. Want to come shopping?”

When pressed, many marketeers will admit, even if grudgingly, that in certain sectors – cosmetics, perhaps, or luxury watches – decisions are driven by emotion. But they are adamant that for their products – accountancy, office supplies, water softeners – the buying decision is 100% based on reason. This is a convenient belief, since it allows them to merely describe things, which may, by the way, include the benefits of ownership. Here’s the thing:

ALL decisions are driven by emotion. This has been shown by neuroscientists like Professor Antonio Damasio, in whose book, The Feeling of What Happens, you can read the experimental and clinical evidence for this claim. We use information to validate our decisions. But the impulse comes from our emotions. Simply put, when we have to choose between two or more competing options, knowing one is better is important, but feeling it is better is critical.

After we have decided – in a split second – that one course of action is the right one, we then review and possibly even select the data that backs up our gut feeling. (Although, as we know, the seat of decision-making is neither the gut, not the heart, but the limbic system.)

So what happens if we accept that emotions drive decision-making? How does it affect our copywriting?

The answer is, not as much as you might think. Our planning stays the same. We have to figure out our reader’s point of pain, what rouses them from slumber at three in the morning. We have to figure out how our product or service solves that problem. And we have to understand the reasons why our customer might not want to buy from us.

But having done all that, the way we approach the sales process is quite different. Rather than simply listing benefits – save time, save money, enjoy peace of mind – we need to sink a hook, baited with emotion, deep into the prospect’s limbic system.

That calls for strategies quite different from the argument-driven, intellectually-framed copy that many of us were trained to write. Strategies that owe more to the arts of storytelling, rhetoric and drama than classical economics, journalism or marketing.

In the next post in this series I will explain how to use the oldest-known form of verbal communication to make the sale.

Andy’s new book, Persuasive Copywriting, is now available for pre-order. Save 20% with discount code MKTACPO


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