Persuasion 401: All The Feels

After an extended winter break, we’re back with the final installment of our crash course on persuasion and web copy.

So far we’ve talked about:

  1. Calls to Action
  2. Problem-Solution format
  3. Establishing authority

In this final installment, we’re going to talk about emotional appeals.

Humans (and especially buyers) are emotional creatures. We like to think we’re logical, but even if you’re the kind who researches everything to death before you make a purchase (like me), the final choice usually comes down to, “I just like this” or “I think this is what I need/want” or “If I don’t get this one, I’ll miss out.”Appeal to emotions means using your reader’s feelings to influence them in a way that will have them ready to take action.

In general, you can choose to either appeal to negative or positive emotions. There are pros and cons to each, so you’ll need to consider that before you decide which way to go.

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Appeals to Negative Emotions

A lot of sales depends on feelings like fear, societal embarrassment, guilt, etc. It’s a common tactic in advertising and especially public service announcements. If you don’t do X, you’ll die. If you don’t buy this product, you’ll get fat and lose the girl. If you don’t wear this brand, you won’t fit in.

Well, that sounds awful. Why would anyone do that?

Because it works.

There is a reason television commercials and politicians alike love this tactic and spend a lot of their advertising budgets on messages that use it. Fear pushes us outside of our comfort zone and makes a change in behavior or attitude necessary if we want to get rid of those feelings.

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When we feel negative emotions, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that feeling disappear. If you’re scared of bad skin or body odor, you’ll happily buy something to prevent you from having to worry about it or damper that sense of being uncomfortable, awkward, etc.

Negative emotions don’t always have to be life or death, though. If you’re a custom wedding dress maker, you might say that buying off the rack dresses will make her look like every other bride. Or won’t be just what she needs. Or won’t flatter her or speak to her aesthetic. Or simply, she’ll spend a lot of money on something that she isn’t 100% satisfied with.

There are cons, however.

Appealing to fear, anxiety, etc. is effective, but you also should consider the after effect it might have on your audience. If you use a negative appeal, you’re basically promising to save your customers with your product or service. If they feel cheated after the fact, you’ve left them with new negative emotions: they aren’t satisfied, they’ve lost money and you’ve lost their trust.

Additionally, making grandiose claims isn’t the way to go. Don’t tell them they’re going to die if they don’t buy your all natural breakfast smoothies. They won’t, and you know that. That is a lie, and your customers will see right through it.

Finally, research on the effects of negative appeals suggests that negative appeals may be felt intensely at first, but are generally subjective. What might be scary for one buyer is not a concern for another. Also, it seems like the effects of a negative appeal may fade quickly, even if the person was not persuaded to buy, which means they won’t be buying at all.

Appeals to Positive Emotions 

Positive emotions include things like happiness, satisfaction, confidence, productivity, love, and so on. Marketing strategies that use positive appeals focus on how great the buyer will feel if they do buy rather than the unwanted consequences that come with not buying.

Instead of, “If you don’t buy this computer, your productivity will suffer,” a new tech company might stress something like, “Buying this computer gives you all the tools you need to get your work done faster so you can enjoy more personal time.”

In the dress-making example, you could quickly turn all of those won’t messages into wills. Working with a custom dressmaker for your wedding dress will give you complete control. You’ll get a final product that flatters your body and speaks to your personality. You will be a one-of-a-kind bride on your once-in-a-lifetime day.

Sometimes, companies will even bypass that and just position their products to be associated with feel-good moments.

Maybe you saw that old school instant coffee commercial over the holidays. You know the one: Peter’s home! That commercial has been running for over three decades unchanged because it’s timeless. It doesn’t specifically say the product is the cause of everyone being happy, but it’s an integral part of the overall experience of a picture-perfect Christmas and being reunited with loved ones.

But do positive appeals work as well as negative appeals?

The answer is yes and no. If you want intensity or for your customer to click that button RIGHT NOW, negative appeals might be the way to go.  But positive appeals do work because in general, positive emotions tend to be more universal, whereas negative emotions tend to be more personal. Most of us want to feel loved, strive to be happy and want to be content, but we are not all worried about the same things, and we feel fear differently. Therefore, a positive appeal may have more lasting power than a negative appeal. With positive appeals, we might not feel the immediate necessity of buying,  but the lasting power of the appeal is more likely to have us coming back later when we’re still craving those warm fuzzies.

Which one should I use?

Either one.

Or both.

Ultimately, it’s up to you (and your copywriter if you’re working with one). By considering your audience, your brand’s voice, and what exactly it is you’re offering, you should be able to figure out which kind of messaging works best for you and when. (And don’t be scared of using negative appeals; it doesn’t make you a bad person. Like I said, there’s a reason it’s such a common tactic in advertising.)

But make sure that you are clear about which appeals you’re using and where in your copy they appear.


Your final exam.

I told you there might be one.

If you’ve been doing the homework I’ve given you in each part of this series, you’ve probably gone back to your own website to do some self-evaluation. Now is time to go back and consider the wholeness of your copy.

What kinds of appeals are you using? Can you find and list them easily?

Are you using those appeals to solve problems?

Are you giving your readers a reason to trust that you can solve their problems?

Does everything lead up to easy-to-perform calls to action?

If not, it’s time to start editing.

If so, then congratulations; you’ve just graduated!

Prof. Lauren


The new year is the perfect time to reconsider your web copy and make changes that will have lasting effects on the livelihood of your business.

I hope this series has been helpful for you. If you still have questions, need a second pair of eyes, or are ready to admit that persuasive writing just isn’t your thing, get in touch! 

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