It’s time to sell a block of cheese!

Not just any cheese. Velveeta.

(Which is leftover swiss cheese bits and whey. Mmm.)

So, what do you do? How do you interest people?

Here’s how they did it in this 1960’s Velveeta ad:

Copy for Velveeta ad

The ad re-creates a moment many mothers are sure to have felt: a day spent rushing around, trying to get everything ticked off her list, taking care of her children and then being confronted with the task of trying to make something fast, easy and delicious for her family. Who has the time or energy to make a roux for macaroni and cheese?

But look! Here’s a simple solution that gets me. It appreciates me.

Plus, it speeds up cooking time and is oh so versatile!

Sounds wonderful.

And what’s this? It’s “full of health,” making it “extra good for youngsters and young mothers.”

You know we buy based on emotion and justify with logic.
But do you know why?

In the SAGE Handbook of Advertising, Dr. Gerard Tellis writes:

“Emotions are direct reactions to the stimulating atmosphere that is being created by the artistic execution known as an ad.”

So whether it’s through sadness, joy, excitement, frustration—writing copy that teases out emotions helps prime readers for your solution.

Studies show that one’s emotional response to ads impacts intent to buy by a factor of 3-to-1 for television ads and 2-to-1 for print ads.

And certain emotions produce even stronger results. Stories with undertones of anger, anxiety and awe were the most widely shared pieces on the New York Times website, as indicated in a study by two University of Pennsylvania professors

Emotion sells.

Take the following ASPCA ad. Rather than speaking to positive emotions and benefits that donating to their organization can bring – healthy dogs playing fetch – they take the sadness angle. They arouse strong feelings of guilt and anxiety for these sad-looking animals. Cue Sarah McLachlan, in case you weren’t already moved enough…

As much as you may find yourself rushing to change the channel (for shame!) after the third time an ASPCA commercial interrupts your viewing of The Voice, the marketing itself proves out. It works. Poking at raw emotions works to the tune of $142M per year for the ASPCA (as reported here for fiscal year 2013).

We see fundraisers for non-profits use this tactic all the time.

An AMA Journal of Marketing Research study tested 3 different emotion-inspiring photos in a fundraising campaign: sad, happy, neutral. They found that the sad photos produced a 25% higher response rate than happy or neutral photos.

Emotional advertising

Emotional copywriting is widely used in the for-profit sector, too. Has been for decades.

Consider Budweiser’s 2015 SuperBowl ad. This little 60-second spot played up the “Awww!” factor with its #BestBuds lost puppy ad. Any surprise it was named the #1 commercial of 2015 by USA Today (and has over 29M YouTube views)?


Studies and fMRI neuro-imagery echo the fact that emotion in advertising is important.

The driving force behind our emotional reactions, as demonstrated by very cute monkeys

Some scientists believe that our response to emotional arousal is a survival mechanism. Think fight or flight. When we’re triggered emotionally, our survival instinct is to take action. It’s why we yell when we get angry. It’s why we haul ass in the other direction when we spot a threatening person.

In the 1980s, a team of neurophysiologists at the University of Parma in Italy studied neural activity in monkeys.

They observed the brain cells of macaque monkeys when they a) took action – like holding a banana – and b) saw someone else take that action.

Yes, they tested ‘monkey see, monkey do.’

Here’s what they found: the monkey’s neural activity was the same in both scenarios. When the monkey held the banana, X Cells lit up. When the monkey saw another person holding the banana, those same X Cells lit up.

Image of monkey see monkey do study copywriting

That’s kinduv interesting, right? To us as marketers? The brain of our visitor can be as engaged watching something happen as actually making something happen. Let’s hold onto that thought…

Before we go too deep, let’s get this out there: the X Cells above are called mirror neurons. Should you only dabble in brain study (ahem), this means the neuron mirrors actual behavior.

This is how I think of it: You’re sitting in a gym, and you see a volleyball player get smacked in the face with a ball. Immediately, you flinch, cringe, gasp or do all of the above.

We see the same principle at play in the rubber hand illusion. A person feels pain when a finger on a rubber hand (positioned as if attached to his or her body) is pulled in the wrong direction. Even though there was no actual physical pain in this experiment, the brain still reacts as if there was. Watch and be dazzled:

And remember the iPad game, Slide HD? Bloody thing made you flinch and yelp – even though there was absolutely no chance that you’d be hurt:

The role of mirror neurons goes beyond physical associations, too. Researchers have found that mirror neurons also make us feel empathy for others. They can even enable us to predict another person’s emotions.

Imitation and empathy in marketing

Researchers have discovered that mirror neurons play a role in two main areas of the human mind: Imitation and Empathy. One role that mirror neurons play in the human mind is mimicry. We learn by imitating others, and it’s thanks in part to mirror neurons that we are able to do that.

The Imitation Game

Imitation is one of the primary ways babies and toddlers learn. A study conducted by the University of Washington and Temple University showed activation patterns in babies’ brains while learning via imitation – specifically, when adults touched an item with their hands versus with their feet.

The tendency to imitate or emulate others is harnessed in the world of advertising. Gatorade’s “I want to be like Mike” comes to mind. We want to imitate our heroes because they are masters of their crafts (and rich, and famous, and sometimes really good-looking).

A classic headline formula leverages the power of imitation:

[Do something] like [world-class example]

Triggering Empathy

In one study, 15 participants inhaled scents, some of which were pleasurable, some neutral and some disgusting. They also watched videos of actors wrinkling their faces in disgust. Neuroscientists Christian Keysers and Bruno Wicker analyzed fMRI data of the participants and found that the same part of the brain was activated whether the participant was disgusted by a scent or watched someone else showing signs of disgust.

Disgust and emotion

Professor V.S. Ramachandran of Neuroscience at the University of California San Diego explains that mirror neurons are the basis of empathy:

“If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”

So, we’ve arrived at a place where we know this: mirror neurons help the human mind feel without experiencing.

But how can we leverage that in our copywriting?

Tell character-driven stories that tap into powerful emotions

Stories that tap into emotions help us connect more effectively with an audience’s goals, perceptions and frustrations. Researchers found that synthesis of Oxytocin (the chemical that’s part of our ability to empathize) happens when we’re told emotional, character-driven stories.

Psychologist Walter Dill Scott explains this further in The Psychology of Advertising:

“The writer of advertisements… should present his argument in such a form that it will naturally and easily be associated by the reader with his own former experience. This is best done by appealing to those interests and motives which are the ruling principles of the reader’s thinking.”

Teasing out these feelings – specifically unpleasant ones – means the reader is better primed for the solution you can then promote. Think about the classic page-layout formula, PAS:

  1. Problem
  2. Agitation
  3. Solution

When writing with PAS in mind, you start by stirring up memories of times your prospect has been irritated by a problem. You agitate it; this is poking at the raw emotion; this is the tenth shot of an abandoned puppy that desperately needs your help. Finally, you present your reader with the perfect fix, the solution that makes their problem vanish. (That is, your solution.)

If you’re not a fan of PAS, try SPIN. Neil Rackman, author of SPIN Selling, teaches that using Situations, Problems, Implications, and Need-payoffs (SPIN) can turn a disinterested prospect into a motivated buyer.

Let’s take a Life Alert commercial as an example:

Along with images of an elderly woman taking a fall and then grimacing in pain, the copy evokes emotion by narrating a story (starting with the problem, agitated with specifics):

“When I slipped and fell in my kitchen a couple of months ago, I’d never felt so helpless in my life. I was in so much pain I couldn’t move—let alone get to a phone. I laid there for hours.”

Then the ad presents a solution: the Life Alert necklace. It features a button that alerts emergency services immediately.

“After that terrible ordeal, I got Life Alert,” the actress says.

Then a narrator steps in to drive home the solution:

“With Life Alert, one touch of a button can get you help FAST.”

PAS is great. But let’s flesh out that formula, shall we?

If we leverage the advantage our mirror neurons provide, we can come up with a formula that ups the likelihood our copy will hit the mark.

Helen Woodward expressed this well:

“In writing good advertising, it is necessary to put a mood into words and to transfer that mood to the reader.”

Now, empathy and imitation are not revolutionary ideas in the world of advertising or copywriting. However, what we can learn from this data is that leveraging both empathy and imitation together makes those mirror neurons fire. And that’s a good thing. Engaging the brain is a good thing – but doing so while tapping into emotion is best.

You can write to activate mirror neurons by:

  1. Presenting an emotional situation that the reader can empathize with, and then
  2. Presenting a solution that’s endorsed by a figure the reader trusts and respects (and, deep down, wants to imitate).

Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Define your ideal customers. Think about the exact type of person you are trying to reach, and then take the time to work up a document that outlines all of the specifics about this target persona. Include details about age, gender, geographic location, income level, job type, family size, hobbies, education, etc. Any time you create a piece of copy, keep this document nearby so you remember who you’re writing to.

Step 2: Define your ideal customer’s fears, problems, frustrations, and common obstacles that your product can solve. The only way to do this is to ask. It might mean surveying your website visitors with a tool like FourEyes and asking questions about what obstacles they are facing. It means sending a questionnaire to your current and past customers to see why they were motivated to work with you. It means studying your competitors to see what pain points they are speaking to with a similar audience.

Step 3: Describe all the ways your product solves those pain points. For every new customer problem/obstacle you discover, write down how you can fix it with your offering. Have a running list of benefits and problem-solving features your product offers that you can pull from when creating a piece of copy.

Step 4: Create a storyline. When it’s time to write, create a fictional situation involving your target customer dealing with those pain points your product can solve. For example: If your business offers an accounting tool that makes invoicing and finance tracking simple, your story could involve a frantic business owner who is stressed out at tax time. You could create a scenario in which the business owner is buried in a pile of receipts and missing invoices, and is still trying to run day-to-day operations.

Step 5: Add in emotion. Use emotion-rich adjectives that make the situation more relatable. Emotional response = mirror neurons firing. As copywriter Henneke Duistermaat wrote,

“Emotion-rich adjectives make your readers feel something, and they will remember how you made them feel.”

Use words like ‘confusing’, ‘complicated’ and ‘inconvenient’ when discussing a pain point.

Use words like ‘easy’, ‘seamless’ and ‘intuitive’ to highlight benefits.

Remember: To activate mirror neurons, you need to evoke empathy via a strong emotion like anger, sadness or anxiety. Really get the reader’s heart thumping in response.

Step 6: Present your solution as the simplest way to solve the problem. And show how the solution then created positive results within your storyline after implementation by incorporating someone you audience would want to imitate. You could tie in a testimonial from a trusted thought leader in the industry, have a well-known face and name represent your product, or you could showcase something envy-worthy like an incredible outcome you helped produce.

If you can follow these six steps, it will be hard for the target persona to ignore the benefits you’ve provided. They’ve now got a strong reason to take action.

By activating the audience’s mirror neurons, you’ve created a relatable situation that is far more effective than simply showcasing the benefits of your product.

An example of copy that activates mirror neurons effectively can be seen in Sally Field’s Boniva commercial. First, it’s important to recognize that Sally Field is certainly someone women want to emulate. She’s a respected, Oscar-award winning actress. Mirror neurons are first triggered when women in Boniva’s target audience recognizes her and see that she is endorsing the product.

The script for the commercial opens with a problem:

“I always thought Calcium and Vitamin D and exercise would keep my bones healthy…but I got Osteoporosis anyway.”

This single opening sentence reminds women diagnosed with Osteoporosis of their frustration: even women who work hard to eat healthy and be active face this serious health problem.

Emotion triggered? Check!

She then seals the deal by presenting the solution:

“So my doctor started me on once monthly Boniva. He told me something important: Boniva works with your body to help stop and reverse bone loss.”

Another example can be seen on this snippet from a Freshbooks landing page.

Freshbooks emotional copy

They use testimonials from professionals in various industries to leverage product benefits and highlight how different pain points have been solved by Freshbooks.

Plus, by reinforcing the positive “love” emotion throughout the copy, they create a scenario that other business owners definitely want to replicate for themselves.

If you know your ideal customer’s pain points as well as what makes him/her tick, your copy will tap into mirror neuron activation to play on both positive and negative emotions that move people to feel, which is 90% of converting.

So, some key takeaways and ideas for you:

  • Sell a happier life, not a product
  • If you want your story to be shared, tell one with undertones of anger, anxiety or awe
  • If you’re raising money, use sad photos
  • Watching is a proxy for doing, so demonstrate your product solving a problem for a real person (ideally an influential person)
  • People mimic, so run a test showing someone doing the thing you want your visitor to do – like signing up for a trial or tweeting your tweet
  • If you want visitors to feel something – like happiness or confidence – use photos or videos of people in that state
  • Tell a character-driven story – we see this in emails from some of the best email marketers on the planet, from Ramit Sethi to Ben Settle
  • Use moody words

And finally: Let me know in the comments what you plan to do differently in your copy going forward…


Editor’s note: I’ve never tried Velveeta. ~jo