Fear, Greed, Guilt, Exclusivity, Sex: Still the Emotional DNA of Direct Marketing

In its infancy, direct marketing was the misunderstood stepchild of the advertising world. Back in the early 1980s, it was often seen as hyperbolic and graphically loud, insistent and unsophisticated. It was like advertising with ADHD. Direct marketers used to explain to general advertisers that direct response was primarily about influencing behavior, not changing attitudes. They smiled patiently as they pointed to their multimillion dollar campaigns with four-word headlines and one little paragraph of tasteful body copy. Them: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” Us: “50% off when you respond before midnight!” They were clearly wearing the pumped-up kicks; direct marketers had on combat boots. Fast forward to 2014 and all the predictions about where direct marketing would go have emerged as current wisdom. The internet has morphed into the ultimate direct marketing machine where copy is now “content” and 40 characters in a subject line is a long headline. It is all about direct response—from “likes” to clicks to tweets. But here’s the funny part: embedded within all this “New Direct Media” is still the same DNA that has motivated direct marketing from the start. A highly successful colleague in the direct marketing business explains it this way: “It’s always about fear, greed, guilt, exclusivity, and sex. Those are the motivators, the emotions that can turn a moment into a sale.” Really. Just five things to remember when you are framing an offer? Just five base emotions that could make us change our behavior? Well the next time you pick up your mail and walk through your front door sorting through various envelopes deciding whether to dump or not, notice some of the emotions sitting there staring up at you. “Do Not Bend.” “Critical Information about Your Account: Open Immediately.” “Seven tricks your broker is playing on you… see inside!” “Exclusive 12-hour sale starts the minute you open this envelope…” “If the list upon which we found your name is any indication, then you owe it to yourself to see the letter inside…” And no wonder a lot of direct marketing headlines start with an active verb: “Get slim!” “Make love—better!” “Start winning at poker.” “Drive the future.” And these same emotions and promises are the sturm and drang of virtually every magazine cover. They push us into watching animal videos on Facebook. They call to us, dare us, push our buttons to simply get our attention. And that’s the whole point. Direct marketing is primarily about influencing behavior, not attitudes. And before you can make me act, respond, sign up, or join…you have to figure out a way to make me stop. And look. And act. This is direct marketing 101. But it’s also direct marketing 2014. Illustration by Dustin McDavid

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