3 Coercive Copywriting Techniques

I spent some time recently talking about manipulation and lies.

I told you those two stories so you could see where I think the line gets crossed by marketers, but also so I could tell you this story.

In 1999 Douglas Rushkoff published a book called Coercion, which essentially tracks the evolution of marketing into a branch of psychology. He illustrates exactly how marketers try to influence and persuade you in various media, and outlines the history of marketing as a measured science.

It all started with a copywriter named Claude Hopkins who first applied empirical testing to advertising elements back in the 1920s, and of course things have only become more sophisticated. Massive database profiles, television “programming,” contextual web ads, sophisticated algorithms that make recommendations based on past behaviors—these are some of the ways marketers are trying to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.

Meanwhile, as we all have become more media savvy, cynicism among consumers has never been higher. Some consider all marketing coercive and manipulative, simply because influence is being employed for money. While Rushkoff doesn’t quite go there, I think that’s what people come away with after reading his book.

Online, this rampant cynicism is the motivation for a new movement some call Marketing 2.0. More authenticity, transparency, dialogue, proof, and education are the only way to overcome heavy skepticism according to this “new” school of thought.

A few thoughts of my own:

  • It should be clear to you that I don’t believe marketing messages that tell the truth are coercive. We all use influence to get things in life—time, love, friendship, fame, power, loyalty, and yes . . . money too. The fact that some people ignore that human beings are natural creatures of influence in all areas of life simply demonstrates that those people place too much emphasis on the abstract symbol of value we call money.
  • There is nothing new about Marketing 2.0. These techniques have been used outside of the mass media since the beginning of humanity. Whenever you’re trying to reach people in a more direct fashion (as opposed to through a television screen), authenticity, transparency, dialogue, proof, and education are crucial. Online is no different.
  • Here’s the irony—persuasion works best when it’s invisible. The most effective marketing leaves people with the impression that they have made a completely independent decision based only on the facts. But that’s not how people make decisions (as Rushkoff’s Coercion and Cialdini’s Influence make clear), and therefore the “new” marketing could be viewed as the most manipulative form of selling ever.

Again, that’s not how I view it. But here are three tried and true copywriting techniques that fly under a prospect’s radar, disarm cynicism, and yet still powerfully persuade. You can come to you own conclusions about their level of evil.

  1. Honesty – Try pointing out the flaws in your offering upfront, explaining that the product is not for everyone, and being brutally frank. In this day and age of exaggeration and fine print, people are so disarmed by simple and intentional honesty that they will pay closer attention to the rest of what you have to say, and you’ll have more credibility in the prospect’s eyes when it’s time for a purchase decision.
  2. Storytelling – Stories engage a reader’s mind and emotions in a way that dry sales text can never accomplish. Plus, in addition to the literal story that you tell, every good story provides a connotation that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. And since people rarely argue with their own conclusions… You get it, right?
  3. Teaching – When we learn new things, we grow new neural connections in our brains as we expand our knowledge. And brain research confirms that emotional engagement is linked to learning because it helps us recall relevant memories stored in our central nervous system. This means teaching with solid emotionally-based messages is simply smart marketing.

So, want to reach directly into someone’s mind and push the right buttons?

Tell honest stories that teach people why they should use your product or service.


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Reader Comments (29)

  1. says

    Makes complete sense to me. I remember hearing something similar to this in one of my college marketing classes (I think it was). A certain webhost I was with for awhile last year did something similar when their servers went down. Instead of playing it off or ignoring it, they actually CREATED A BLOG to explain (in hilarious detail) all the nonsense that had befallen their poor web service. Instead of becoming more irate with the company, the customers are actually rallying around it, because of the sheer up-front honesty that the company chose to share.

    I really apreciate these posts of yours. Simple, to-the-point, and easy to understand. Keep up the good work.

  2. says

    Here’s a hypothetical for you. What about the company, say a large software company, who has earned itself a reputation for being somewhat of a “liar” in the industry. Shady business practices, promoting bargains that turned out not to be what they seemed, etc. How much does honesty help in that situation? Would it be possible to build a campaign on admitting past failures? If so, would the company want to publically air all of it’s dirty laundry? Or is there a point where there’s balance between being straightforward and potentially making yourself look worse?

    I guess the gist of what I’m trying to get at is: given your #1 statement, is there such a thing as too honest, or damagingly honest, in your view?

  3. says

    Well said! There is a huge opportunity to build relationships, particularly with Gen Y and the Millennials set, but being first and foremost honest.

    The one thing I would say when you are using something like this is that oftentimes, executives have to be convinced that these tactics (storytelling, honesty and teaching) work. It seems silly at first that you have to convince a CEO that the truth works, but you see this a lot as younger marketers are try to find the balance between the “hard sell” and the softer, more genuine touch.


    20-Something Marketing
    Marketing | Business | Life

  4. says

    Great post, Brian! I have been putting some material together on this subject myself lately. Coercion, persuasion, sales – whatever you want to call it – it really critical to our success.
    In a lot of ways, we are ALWAYS selling something (another word of wisdom from my hubby – but it took me a while to digest the concept). We sell our spouses on doing the dishes. We sell our kids on themselves to boost their self esteem. We sell ourselves on the idea that we must be great bloggers, so we write great stuff!
    Ooooo – we could go on and on about this one.. 😉

  5. says

    I really liked this post because it is close to my heart. I think, Brian, as you pointed out, honesty is the keyword here. This works good for a copywriter too. If you are honest, there is this marvelous flow in your writing that doesn’t show up while trying to come up with a coercive, manipulative copy.

  6. says

    When I first opened shop nearly 20 years ago, I made a vow I wouldn’t work for any client who made my skin crawl.

    The best copy comes from a deep ense of honesty, genuine passion for the product/service you’re promoting … all critical elements to crafting a strong, smart message that will emotionally register with the reader — and will help move and support them toward making a smart, confident purchase.

    When I’m deep into copy flow, I’m that product/service’s advocate to my prospect. I’m a believer eager to share the good news. That can only work if I feel genuinely good about the stuff being promoted.

    I’m not sure who said this, but here’s my paraphrase. “If you wouldn’t let your mother buy this product/service, then Good G-d, man, don’t promote it and don’t sell it.”

    Words to live and write by …

  7. says

    It’s funny how people will try to manipulate you into believing manipulation is evil. :)

    I think sales is one of the most self-actualizing practices one can take up. Of course, like any practice, it can get stunted at an egocentric level–where manipulation resides–and never transform into a truly worldcentric practice. But I still think it’s a superior path to self-development.

    My favorite example is when friends tell me that they’re no good at sales. I always say, “I’m not buying it.” Then they proceed to “sell” me on the idea that they’re no good at selling. I just laugh and then they usually get the joke. :)

  8. says

    Hmm… I would say that nowadays not everyone can distinguish between honest copy and otherwise. It’s more about expectation. No?

    Those who fail after reading the latest online business ebook should not blame the ebook for dishonesty, but lack of actions. Even if the copy mention that there is hard work involved, buyers’ expectations should be different from individual to another.

    @Roberta: I won’t let my mom buy a product if she is not in my niche market, not because the product is lousy. But in term of quality, that statement rings true.

    @Brian: You mentioned what marketers would call behavioral targeting. Yes, it is coming.

  9. says

    Many of the techniques of persuasion and coercion are the same. The main difference that I can see lies in intent – who benefits. When we try to persuade someone, both parties or only the persuadee will be be benefitting in some way. When you try to coerce them, you’re doing it for your benefit.

  10. says

    Of course we want to sell – it is what words and writing achieve for business.

    However readers have grown to be more educated and aware of old selling tricks, so more subtle selling might now work better.

    As I am not a great writer (nor a great actor) I’ve always found it was easier to write the truth.

    I am a great fan of stories and have found them to work very well in a business context – I know stories got plenty of praise on this blog in the past.

    Don’t we just all love stories? They are everywhere, in each family, business, country and carry the reader effortlessly from a paragraph to the other. People will always read a good story.

    Maybe the challenge lies in writing truthful stories, that help us learn.

    If this is achieved… selling might happen on it’s own.

  11. says

    I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. I mean how hard is it to copy writing. I concede that to mirror someone’s handwriting is fairly tricky, but in this world of Word documents it’s merely a question of ‘select’, ‘right click’, ‘copy’. Nuff said.

  12. says

    Manipulation is not the problem (or an evil). It is the end result that matters.
    A variant of the end justifies the means philosophy.

    If you manipulate me into saving a ton of money or getting a really useful product or service, I am grateful. But manipulate me into buying crap and I’ll curse you, the crap and the manipulation.

    PS Love the Tubetorials

  13. Roshawn says

    Let’s see: honesty, storytelling, and teaching. I must say, I agree.

    On the web, however, many disregard the honesty. It’s often seen in the sales pages of ebooks. In such writings, everyone’s some type of expert claiming they have insider secrets and such , and they reveal how they obtained them through some lame story detailing the who, what, when, where, and how they learned.

    Despite the abuse of storytelling and so-called teaching, honesty is still the best policy. Thankfully, there will be people always willing to combine the three. :-)

    Good job, Brian.

  14. says

    Of course we want to sell – it is what words and writing achieve for business.

    However readers have grown to be more educated and aware of old selling tricks, so more subtle selling might now work better.

  15. says

    Great article – got me thinking about how to write my next article.

    At the end of the day if you have a good product and people are interested in it, then it is easier to write good words about that product.

  16. says

    if you’re writing sales pages for products you sell on the internet then use different copywriting techniques to do the job. a. Writing bullets b. hits your prospects emotionally c. comparing two sales letters, or a number of particular elements

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