Copy That Converts: The Primal Edge

When people hire me to critique their copy, one of the most predictable mistakes they make is selling to their prospects at the “socially acceptable” level.

It’s a common mistake, and even a common-sense mistake. It seems like it should work.

But, as you’ll see in a minute, it doesn’t.

What works ever so much better?

Selling to your prospect’s “primal mind.”

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you sell a terrific product that helps little kids learn to read better. Of course, the kids themselves aren’t the ones who buy this product.

Most likely, it’s the kid’s parents.

Now, at a “socially acceptable” level, Mommy and Daddy want little Johnny to read better because he’ll do better in school… have higher self-esteem… get into a better college… have a more successful career… and enjoy all the other benefits of life that good readers enjoy.

Admirable parents.

And, let’s be clear, all those desires on the part of the parents are real. But there’s a huge problem with using those desires as the primary reasons, or benefits, for buying your product.

Here’s the problem: Those reasons are all “forebrain” stuff. They come mostly from the conscious, rational mind. The part of the brain known formally as the “frontal cerebral cortex.”

And this part of the brain is very good at coming up with things people say to be “socially acceptable.”

So why is this a problem?

Because all of those “socially acceptable reasons” almost never have any real power when it comes to getting people to actually buy something.

For that, we turn to another level of the brain. This is very important. For it is at this level where buying decisions really get made… and this is level from where powerful, raw emotional motivations spring forth, that get people to buy.

It’s called the primal level.

And at the primal level, things look and sound quite different than they do at the conscious, “forebrain” level.

At the primal level, the brain stem—commonly known as “the lizard brain”—does most of the talking.

See, regardless of what people say to sound “socially acceptable,” we humans are first and foremost, often secretly, sometimes not even consciously, concerned with ourselves.

And those very selfish motives (including selfish buying motives) hang out a lot at the primal level.

Let’s take our little example from before, about the reading product. People’s tendency to focus on oneself means Mommy and Daddy are—at a deep level—most concerned with how little Johnny will make Mommy and Daddy look to others if he can’t read very well.

Here are some of the questions the primal brain worries about:

• What will Grandma say if Johnny doesn’t learn to read well?

• What will the OneUpSki’s who live next door say?

• What will Johnny’s teacher say?

• What will Mommy’s and Daddy’s own “inner critics” say?

You may have found that mildly shocking—or, not particularly.

Well, here’s an even more blatant example of the primal brain at work, from a program on the Showtime cable channel:

It was one of the most chillingly honest lines I have ever seen on TV. It came out of the mouth of Abby, the wife of Ray Donovan on the Showtime drama named after Ray.

Abby’s teenage daughter Bridget told her parents that she had decided never to have children herself.

Abby hisses back at her daughter:

“You’re afraid they’ll turn out like me, aren’t you?”

Think about that. Instead of seeing her daughter’s decision not to have kids as a decision Bridget made for herself, based on what Bridget wants for her own life…

… Abby instead sees Bridget’s decision wholly as a statement about Abby.

Yep. That’s the lizard brain talking.

Not enlightened. Not reflective. Not compassionate.

Because that’s not what the lizard brain does.

It’s all about Abby. Period.

If your head has stopped spinning, and your breathing is back to normal (or, depending on your view of human nature, this may not have shocked you at all)…

How do you work lizard-brain primal talk into your copy?

First of all, you don’t have to be too blunt. Abby’s talking on a high-stakes TV drama. But you’re writing copy to a prospect who’s probably not in the mood for soul-baring confrontation.

Let’s look at our reading product.

I wouldn’t suggest you write something like this:

“Just imagine what your friends and family will think of you, when it’s your son’s turn to read, if he comes across like a drooling, drug-addled idiot? What kind of parent raises a kid like that?”


Sure, it’s good for a laugh (as long as it’s not your kid we’re talking about).

But not so good for sales.

Instead, how about this:

“People almost instinctively know you’re a good parent when your child excels at reading. And while no one would ever have the right to blame you if your child falls behind a little — why even take that chance?”

That’s a little easier to swallow.

And yet—especially if you’re a parent in today’s hyper-competitive world—it’s still pretty hard to miss the point.

Nearly all parents can read the second paragraph and realize if their children don’t read well, people will think less of the parents. And they can read it without being mortally offended.

So, besides being just a little indirect when selling at the primal level, you would do yourself a favor to get to know this part of the brain better.

It’s a long learning curve, to be sure. Books like Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything and Clotaire Rapaille’s The Culture Code are good places to start. Parts of Vic Schwab’s classic, How to Write a Good Advertisement, contain gems— particularly pages 45-47.

Most of all, pay attention. To everything. Especially in copy. What works. What doesn’t. Ask why.

Oh—And if you don’t have a lot of time to learn and master appealing to the primal brain, you can always apply for a copy critique. Together, we can figure out the best ways to get the “primal edge” in your copy.

(And lots of other things to improve your conversion as well.)

By | 2017-04-13T09:13:12-04:00 September 5th, 2016|Uncategorized|3 Comments

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  1. Jim September 12, 2016 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    This is a splendid article, raising many fine points. Thanks

  2. Geoff Dodd September 15, 2016 at 6:41 pm - Reply

    Thanks awesomeness for that, David. It came through very clearly. I must think like a crocodile or an alligator, not like the parent – teacher committee meeting! “How to *kill the competition and grab an extra $100k monthly” please keep writing!

    • david2016 September 15, 2016 at 6:44 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome, Geoff!

      There is one more factor to consider, too: believability!

      But you’re definitely thinking in the right direction. 🙂

      I appreciate your comment!

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