Money Down the Drain
Shhhhhhh! Don’t tell! I was wrong!

For years I was taught never to use a negative in writing copy about a product’s or service’s benefits. Writing that last sentence alone made my head spin. Words like don’t, never, not, negative, nothing and wrong were banished from my copywriting vocabulary.

What’s so bad about these words? (See? Bad is one of those negative words too!)

The Effects of Bad Words

Let’s start at the top. “Noooooooooooooooo!”

Is that the first clear word your baby said? How about: “Don’t touch that!” Or, “Janice Mary Sifkinworth, I never want to hear you say that again!” (Moms always use your middle name when they’re angry and want to make a loud and clear point.)

From an early age we hear a lot about what not to do: “Don’t forget your jacket.” “Don’t forget to return your permission slip!” And then there’s the classic: “Don’t forget your homework.”

We get dialed into disliking and trying to ignore negative instructions like these. Therefore, the assumption in Marketing Land was always: “Don’t use ‘don’t.”

Turns out there’s an exception to this rule. And the funny thing is the benefit is not unlike (see? nasty double-negative there!) the same benefit Mom was trying to convey many years ago.

If you remember the jacket, you won’t get cold. If you remember the permission slip, you get to go on a cool field trip. If you remember your homework, you won’t incur the wrath of Mr. McCloskey, the nasty English teacher who’d never bend the rules.

Trouble is, not unlike (there it is again!) in our childhoods, we have difficulty associating the benefit of a product, service or an action we need to take, when the vocabulary surrounding it is negative in nature. It just feels, well  … negative.

Here’s where it turns out I was …wrong.

Connecting a Negative with a Good Result

A recent study was conducted regarding how folks responded to risk, loss and potential negatives. Here’s the short version of the study:

Option A:  You’ve got two choices with $50: 1) Keep $30, or 2) Risk all of the $50 in a gamble.
Option B:  You’ve got two choices with $50: 1) Lose $20, or 2) Gamble all of the $50 to lose or keep.

They appear to be the same monetary possibility, right? In Option A only 43% of subjects chose to keep the $30. Then the researchers offered them Option B. Interestingly by posing ‘loss’ as the first choice, 62% of subjects opted to gamble with the $50. (Losing sucks, evidently!)

What’s the difference between these two options? The wording. And how the brain processed the benefits of the choices.

A very basic conclusion you can draw is that humans have a greater emotional connection to losing something than they do to keeping something.

I don’t worry about ‘keeping’ my car keys; I worry I might lose them.  I don’t worry about ‘keeping’ the value of my investment portfolio; I worry about losing my money! (And funny thing is we don’t worry about ‘keeping’ our weight; we worry about ‘losing’ weight.)

How does all this negative language translate into more sales for you?

Making more sales is a direct result of framing your Unique Selling Proposition (a topic for another newsletter) in the syntax that triggers more buyers’ hot buttons.

In short, choosing the right words and putting them in the right order will result in more sales.

Right and Wrong Negative Copy

Take the lead from the weight loss industry. They don’t advertise their weight loss systems by saying, “Don’t eat this!” They say, “Lose 50 lbs. by eating that!”

Notice two things in the writing that will help you:

  1. Sentences are two-part: ‘do this in order to get that.’ Balance your copy with this beginning to end structure.
  2. Focus on the result. Remember, all those negative reminders from Mom (don’t do this, don’t forget that) keep you focused on what NOT to do. We often forgot what Mom was getting at on the results end.

This is why the headline: “Don’t let your closet get messy ever again” isn’t the best choice for a closet organizer company. You are reminding the buyer what’s bad about her own closet, but you’re not providing a solution in the headline.

A better headline is: “Don’t lose your red shoes ever again with our perfectly organized closet.”

Breaking down a buyer’s potential reaction even further, examine your own reaction to these two lines of copy:

“Save $100s on broker and hidden fees.”
“Don’t lose $100s in hidden fees and costs.”

Which statement did you have a stronger reaction to? Which one got more of your attention?

Whether or not the end result is presented here (“Save $100s on broker and hidden fees by buying our product”), I’m a lot more concerned with losing money than saving it. This is an emotional reaction. If I behaved rationally and logically, I’d be equally concerned with saving money. But humans don’t work this way. Our brains actually ignore making logical decisions much of the time.

The Gut Reaction Test

Personal reaction plays a big part when I’m writing new copy for a client. If I feel the headline doesn’t promote the desired result or literally makes my chest tighten from heavy negativity, I change it. It isn’t doing the job intended.

So ‘losing weight’ is a good thing, but ‘staying thin’ (or ‘getting thin’) isn’t the same thing, is it? Our emotional side tells us to pay attention to the former while the latter elicits a ho-hum reaction. Ho-hum does not make sales!

Our emotions make these buying decisions for us the majority of the time – even when couched in ‘negative’ phrasing. It is the framework of the vocabulary that triggers response.

“Don’t lose out on this exciting opportunity…” plays to our uncertainties and sense that we don’t want to be left behind. This is a compelling argument regardless of its negative construction.

“Take advantage of this fabulous opportunity…” is wholly positive, but my reaction is, “So what?” I have no emotional connection to the so-called ‘advantage.’ And I don’t buy.

Win by Going Negative

Year after year we lament the use of negative ads in political advertising. Why does it never end? Because it works! Voters respond emotionally to the ads and vote accordingly.

I’m not suggesting you start a smear campaign against your competitors. (Truly this would boomerang and cause your own business great harm.)

In the examples I’ve shown you can see it’s a fine line between wording that makes you uncomfortable and wording that draws you in despite negativity. And it’s usually because we expect a positive outcome as a result.

Use Technology to Get Best Results

In modern marketing, we have the ability to fine tune our headlines and copy through the use of A/B testing. Every business is different. So you should test drive copy variations: (A) “Don’t drive off a cliff! Andy’s Brake Shop will save your life!” As (A) may bring in more customers than: (B) “Save your life! Visit Andy’s Brake Shop so you don’t drive off a cliff!”

Going negative isn’t necessarily selling your soul to the Devil. (It’s not the Devil you do know; it’s the Devil you don’t know you have to watch out for!)

See? Don’t give up on negativity! It just might make your best sale ever!