The Emotional Appeals That Make People Buy

by Dean Rieck

"Will you decorate the bike?"

My cousin handed me an armload of patriotic streamers, flags, and tassels.

"Decorate the bike?" I asked. "What bike?"

She wheeled the bicycle into the middle of the living room. It was a hot July 4th weekend, and my cousin had entered her son in a bike-decorating contest. After the judging, all the contestants would march in the town parade behind the horn-blaring fire engines and ahead of the frenetic men in fezzes driving those funny little cars.

All I wanted to do was sit and relax. But she gently touched my arm and in a low voice said, "I know it's a lot of work, but you're the only one here who can do it right. You have a knack for this sort of thing."

All of a sudden, I found myself sitting on the floor turning the bike into a screaming nightmare of red, white, and blue. Every now and then, my cousin would walk through the room and tell me what a great job I was doing. I became so involved with the project, I not only decorated the bike, I volunteered to transport it to the town square for judging and stood nearby, beaming with pride, as my cousin's son won the "Most Patriotic" award. And I made sure everyone was looking when he peddled by in the parade on "my" bike.

What the heck happened here?

I'll tell you what happened. My cousin used an emotional appeal on me. With no training or guile, she broke through my emotional barrier (I just wanted to relax) and pushed an emotional hot button (I enjoy being recognized for my skills).

In fact, she did exactly what YOU should be doing in every direct mail piece or ad.

Breaching the Emotional Barrier

Let me ask you a question. What were you thinking about right before you started reading this article?

C'mon. Admit it. There was something on your mind, wasn't there?

Maybe you were worrying about paying your daughter's college tuition. Or dreaming about the cruise you're going on in a couple months. Wishing you didn't have to meet with that loudmouth client tomorrow. Wondering if that cute new person in accounting will say yes if you suggest lunch. Regretting that off-color joke you told at the office this morning. Remembering the first word your son spoke and cursing Uncle Pete for teaching it to him.

We all have things on our minds every moment of every day. We are all emotionally preoccupied with our own wants, needs, interests, joys, fears, hopes, expectations, and regrets. And this preoccupation creates an almost impenetrable barrier. You can't get through with logic. And you can't get through with reason.

The only way to get through is with an emotional appeal.

Which is one of the reasons most direct mail packages get trashed. Why most ads are ignored. Because most have no emotional appeal. Or they have a weak one. Or one that's off the mark.

The right emotional appeal is like a hammer, smashing the glass between you and your prospect. It's the answer to the unspoken question every buyer asks before parting with one red cent: "Why would I want this?"

Emotional Appeals in Action

Many years ago, police were having trouble with drivers speeding through their small Texas town. Patrolling, citations, and all the normal tactics failed. The signs on the edge of town read, "Speed Limit 20 mph." Someone suggested making a change. The police replaced the old signs with new ones that read, "20 mph or $19.90." Within a short time, drivers slowed down and the problem was solved.

A parking lot owner was having trouble increasing his business. His lot was located a few blocks from downtown, so patrons had to park and walk. Most people preferred to park closer to downtown. He tried all the usual ploys, such as lowering his prices and issuing discounts. But there were some days when his lot was not even half full. One day, he decided to change all his signs. In big red letters, they read, "PROTECTED PARKING." After that, his lot was full every day.

A mini-mart was having trouble with shoplifters. The owners couldn't afford an elaborate surveillance system, but they had to do something because the dollar loss from theft cut deeply into their meager profit margin. So they placed a policeman in the main aisle. Immediately, shoplifting dropped off to nearly nothing. Surprising? Yes, when you consider that the "policeman" was nothing but a cardboard standup with the picture of a policeman on both sides.

Each of these stories is true. And each is a powerful example of how people live behind a wall of emotions, and how only an emotional appeal can break through that wall.

Those Texas drivers were too preoccupied with where they were going or what they were doing to pay attention to the law. Only when the emotional appeal of losing money was introduced did the message break through.

That parking lot owner tried the emotional appeal of saving money, but people were preoccupied with the greater appeal of convenience. He could only break through with an even more powerful emotional appeal: personal security.

Shoplifters in the mini-mart cared little for the profit of the store owners. They were preoccupied with getting something for nothing. But the emotional appeal of risk avoidance — even the mere idea of it — was enough to crack that preoccupation and actually change the behavior of the shoplifters.

Your Smorgasbord of Emotional Appeals

Okay, okay, this is all fascinating, you say, but how does this apply to me? (See how preoccupied you are with your own needs?) Fine. Let's get down to brass tacks.

Over the years, direct marketing gurus have tried to nail down exactly what it is that motivates people. Everyone has a list. Some are quite helpful, such as Victor Schwab's detailed list of timeless copy appeals and the succinct five motivators of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Others are naive and misleading. One copywriter has said that there are just three motivators: people want more money, more time, and more sex.

My opinion is that people are neither as complicated nor as simple as we might believe. Yes, there are some basic, even universal appeals that work across a broad spectrum of markets. But every product, every offer, every mailing list has its own flavor. And it's counterproductive to force fit every direct mail package or ad into an emotional mold. It's far better to understand the spectrum of emotional appeals and to discover the one that most naturally and effortlessly works with a particular audience.

Here's a list of some appeals. It's not a precise psychological taxonomy of human motivation. It's just a starting point, something to get you thinking about the possibilities. For each message you create, ask yourself what your prospect really wants. Imagine you are the prospect. What do you feel? What do you need?

People want to GET things they don't have and GET MORE of what they do have, including:
People want to AVOID LOSS of things they already have. So, the potential loss of any item on the previous list is a strong motivator — often stronger than acquiring it in the first place. People want to AVOID UNPLEASANTNESS, such as:
People want to ACT in particular ways in order to:
People want to BE and BE SEEN as something special:

Of course, an emotional appeal seldom works alone. Usually there are several appeals at work in any given situation. However, if you have a good product or service, usually one appeal is more powerful than the others.

Now if you'll excuse me, my wife has called and asked me in the nicest way to leave the office early and clean out the basement tonight. I don't relish the idea, but she says I'm such a big, strong man, no one else could possibly do the job.

I think she's been talking to my cousin.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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