I was in a bar in college when some guy walked up to me and, with an absolutely straight face, introduced himself like so:

“Hello. My name is Mohammed. I was suckled at the tits of a princess and I keep tigers as pets.”

He then went on to tell me that I would look sexier if I smoked, I should probably lose some weight, and my hairstyle was OK, but not like, amazing.

Wordless, I walked away.

And right now as you nod and think, “What an asshole, of course you walked away!” let me point out a slightly uncomfortable truth … while we shoot down that kind of nonsense as a matter of course in real life, we’re much quicker to embrace it in web copy.

Wait, what?

So that guy was clearly out of line. But he was using techniques that are often accepted as the end all and be all of web copy, especially sales copy: push on someone’s pain points. Create a sense of insecurity. Give them a motivation that really hits them in the gut. Point out the benefits of using your solution.

For the most part, we turn our noses up at the really obvious negative copy. You know, the stuff that’s clearly meant to make you feel like shit. After all, we’re sophisticated Internet users, we don’t fall for that stuff, right?


Sort of. Sure, we turn away from the obvious manipulation, but soooooo much web copy is written to appeal to the scared little limbic system being inside us, the one that worries about the stuff at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the one that wakes you up at 4 AM.

And the really, really dirty secret? A lot of people fool themselves into thinking they’re doing it for good.

A lot of people who write this stuff or commission it really don’t want to make people feel bad. They really do want to help them with their products or services. But they’ve bought into the idea that there’s no other way to sell something other than to make somebody feel bad first. You’re cruel so that you can be kind. You push on the pain points so you can provide the solution.

But working like this is lazy. Anyone can make a human feel scared for a minute. It’s a reflex of the limbic system that takes no work at all to activate. And if all you want is scattershot sales and churn, OK then. But if you want the good stuff, the sustainable sales, the referrals, the chance to actually make a difference, you’ve got to give a shit and come up with copy that’s written to draw people towards a higher version of themselves.

Cue eye rolls

“But Raaaaachellllllll, everyone knooooowwwws that as humans we’re motivated by sex, greed, and fear! That’s what all the marketing people have known foreeeeeeeveeeerrrrrr!”

Sure, those things motivate us. But not as strongly as you’d think, and certainly not exclusively. And as far as the whole “marketing people have known this forever” … I direct your attention to the mail order ad guru John Caples, who studied this stuff way back before the Internet was a thing, and found that in many cases, appealing to self interest even backfires on you.

So what’s the alternative? Go for transcendence.

That’s the top bit of Maslow’s pyramid, the part where you’re the most fulfilled, best possible version of yourself you can be.

Think about how you can use your words to get people excited about being that higher self, rather than going down into Maslow’s basement for motivation. You know that whatever you’re selling has the potential to make their lives better, so how can you get that across to them? What will they look like, feel like, act like, with it? How will it tangibly make their lives better?

Does this mean that you have to keep everything butterflies and rainbows all the time? Of course not. But it means that every single phrase you write, every position you take, every choice you make on that page is in service of pulling people up instead of pushing them down.

There is a very fine line between demonstrating an understanding of a problem so that you can help lead a person to a higher version of themselves and bullying someone into buying.

So lose the lazy fear-based copy, and stay the hell out of Maslow’s basement!