Persuade with Silky Smooth Copy


sensory metaphors
Substitute sensory metaphors to engage your reader's brain

It shouldn’t surprise Neuromarketing readers that choice of words is important when writing headlines, taglines, or copy, but brain scans show how specific words can have the same meaning but activate different areas of the brain. Emory University researcher Krish Sathian has shown that words that words related to texture, for example, activate areas of the brain associated with touch – even when their usage has nothing to do with tactile sensations. (Abstract, and an interview with Sathian.)

The study looked at phrases that involved “textural methaphors” in which words associated with texture were used in a metaphorical or figurative manner. Subjects also heard the same phrases in which a non-textural word had been used to create the same meaning. For example,

Having a bad day?
Having a rough day?

The use of “rough” in this context caused sensory areas of the brain to be activated while “bad” did not.

As I described in Adjective Power, sensory adjectives were among the most effective types in increasing sales of food items. Those words were used in a mostly literal context, like “buttery plump pasta.”

Will Sensory Metaphors Persuade?

The Emory study didn’t look at whether sensory metaphor-based language was more persuasive. It’s not much of a stretch, though, to posit that copy that lights up sensory areas of the brain (in addition to the other areas activated by non-metaphorical words) is likely to be more memorable and impactful. In addition, the study mentioned in the Adjective Power post cited earlier did connect higher sales to sensory adjectives. So, it’s definitely worth testing the effect of metaphor language in your own copy.

Writing Sensory Copy

The interesting aspect of the new research is that sensory metaphors work even when we don’t think of them as such! “Rough” in the context of a day’s experience doesn’t bring to mind surfaces like gravel or sandpaper, but our minds still make that connection. While literal sensory alternatives can be fairly obvious – substituting “freshly-cracked eggs” for “fresh eggs,” for example – it may take a little more creativity to substitute sensory words in non-sensory products. Nevertheless, by thinking of synonyms for common words in your copy you may find sensory substitutes that work just as well. Adjectives like polished, sharp, fuzzy, slimy, heavy, bright, and many others have their origins in sensory experience but have become commonly used as metaphors. Look up key words in your copy in a thesaurus and see if you can find a sensory metaphor that will work just as well. And it’s not just simple adjectives – phrases like “green with envy,” verbs like “embrace,” and so on have literal sensory interpretations but are common metaphors as well.

It’s time to let your let your copy do the heavy lifting! (Got any good examples of sensory metaphor use, either in your copy or someone else’s? Share them in a comment!)

  1. Margaret J. King says

    Look at any menu to find the sensory effects of copy. This is of course pointing to the way we all make decisions — with the lower, body-based brain centers. Car ads are another example. While car-buying is a technical or engineering decision, it is also a major purchase, and major purchases are driven by cultural and identity values–which go right to the sensory centers.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree about menus, Margaret – they tend to be loaded with sensory terms. Most of those, of course, are literal modifiers. I think the metaphorical use is less obvioius, like, “Rough day at the office? Smooth things out with a Heineken…”

      Car purchases are an interesting case, since they usually happen in person. Both the car and the dealer can offer unique sensory experiences. The new car smell, the purr of the engine, the solid thunk of the door closing… And remember when Infiniti wanted a moving stream in every dealership? Thanks for stopping by!


  2. Tea Silvestre says

    Loved this, Roger. Thanks. (And your “smooth” headline certainly converted me. I clicked right through!) Off to share this one…

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Practice what you preach, right, Tea? 🙂


  3. Joseph Willis Jr says

    Great read!

    It’s funny how the ‘little things’ have the biggest impact.

    Perception comes into play…If the little things have the biggest impact, then why are they considered by some as ‘the little things’.

    When someone decides to go all out with text or a design, and it yields minimal results, why is is seen as ‘the bigger, the better’ or ‘the more the merrier’?

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Kathryn says

    Thanks, Roger. I’ve been enjoying your e-newsletters. This one was particularly helpful. Your tips were easy to grasp and very concrete. (Does ‘concrete’ count as sensory? It IS heavy…..)

    1. Roger Dooley says

      “Concrete” is a good one, Kathryn! It has both the weight aspect and roughness going for it, in my opinion! In advertising use, one might expect that “We take concrete steps to increase your productivity” would do better than “We take effective actions to increase your productivity.” (I like throwing steps in there, “concrete” and “steps” reinforce each other.) Your use of “grasp” is good as well!


  5. Jacques says

    It’s definitely something to consider. What I’ve always found interesting is how put off I am by certain words. “Crisp” white shirts for example are something I see all the time, and the word crisp used in that context really throws me off.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting, Jacques. Personally, “crisp” is a positive thing for a white shirt I’d wear to meet bankers. The word implies a tactile starchiness that would stay fresh-looking to me. But, if I was looking for a leisure shirt I’d probably like a description that implied comfort: “buttery soft,” or, to borrow from my headline, “silky smooth.”


      1. Jacques says

        To me, “crisp” implies something crispy and uncomfortable, which produces lots of crumbs, which is not something I’m looking for in my clothing. As a matter of explanation, crisps over here are what Americans call chips, which is almost certainly contributing to my feeling.

        I guess this just further reinforces the need to test according to your target audience, as words may well bring up different feelings to different people.

        1. Roger Dooley says

          Haha, I forgot the other meaning, that’s a great point. You are absolutely right about testing, Jacques. It’s always a mistake to believe you know exactly how customers will react.


          1. Jacques says

            Absolutely, particularly for anyone with a strong online presence. Testing is cheap, testing is easy, and testing provides invaluable results. There’s really no reason not to be doing it.

  6. Paul Jun says

    Roger, this is an awesome post. Also my first time on your site, but I am definitely interested and definitely subscribing. Great work.

    This post reminds me of Mark Twains quote where he compares the right word and also the right word.

    Even something as simple as rough vs bad can make a huge difference in copy. Now tinker that with your whole message, and writers are sure to have their audience taking action.

    1. Joseph Willis Jr says


      Great insight. I really enjoy the responses to this article! For example, the title of this article is an example.

  7. Joseph Willis Jr says


    I have to admit that still to today I yank readers out of my copy. I’ll check out your article.


  8. TJ McDowell says

    So basically what we’re talking about is connecting copy with subconsious thoughts, right? I’m curious if word choice for similar sensory words would change the effectiveness too. For example, what if we substituted the word “hard” instead of “rough”. They’re both sensory, but they mean different things. So does it really matter that their meaning is different, or should a writer only be concerned with triggering the brain impulse to make the idea more sticky?

  9. Lorii Abela says

    Love this article!.. Honestly I have learned something from this article that I could use in writing my blog posts. Thanks.

  10. Copywriter Ireland says

    ‘Textural’ words are not something I really noticed before but it makes so much sense. I can’t believe more copywriting books don’t mention it. Well done, Roger

  11. Leah says

    Very interesting article. But as other readers have pointed out, you have to be certain of the target audience’s cultural sensitivities. Evoking a wrong image would be counterproductive.

  12. Mike Lovas says

    I’m enjoying seeing so many bright people get excited by more purposeful word usage. Inclusion of sensory language is a wonderful example. This area of linguistics is certainly not new. I discovered it about ten years ago when I was studying Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The double-meaning words are called “ambiguities.” They are a “back door” into the reader’s subconscious.


  13. Lizette Beard says

    Saw the article linked from another blog. Great insights! ~Lizette

  14. Re-Evolution SEO says


    Fantastic article! This is a subject that I’ve been talking about and researching for years. I believe that one of the most recent comments mention NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) in relationship to this topic and I just wanted to take a moment to dive into the subject a bit more. NLP actually makes a big deal about that kind of sensory-based languaging. There are multiple reasons as to why it is such a big deal. Now, while I shall try not to venture off and take everyone on a scenic route tour of all of the wild & zany ideas and theories linguistics and brain, I would to bring to light several additional facets and variables that my gut tells me are important to grasp and get a feel for, in order to increase the level of persuasion of sensory metaphors languaging patterns.

    First, do tend to effect people by activating and stimulating their Internal Representational Systems – our “internal” five senses (i.e. internal visceral kinesthetic sensations, internal visual images, sounds, etc.). This causes their focus of attention to shift slightly inward which shifts their brainwave state from Beta into high alpha waves and therefore causes them to start to increase their focus of attention onto what they are reading.

    Now, in order to be sure that your content will be highly persuasive, I think that its important to hold in mind that you must be sure to utilize as many different modes of sensory metaphors as possible.

    Visual Mode: “Look on the brightside….”, “It just dawned on me….”,”He was a colored past….”,”I see what you are saying.”, etc.
    Auditory Mode:”You’re speaking my language…”, “It is music to your ears…”,etc.
    Kinesthetic Mode:”Keep this under finger…..”, “This cars is a smooth ride”,”The economy is rough on you”,”Take a second to just soak it all up.”
    Even Gustatory & Olfactory Mode:”What a dirty, rotten liar”,”The sweet smell of Success”, etc.

    The more variety of sensory metaphors you include in your content, the more you will be able to produce a vivid and full internal sensory experience in your reader at a subconscious level which bypasses the Neocortex and instead is registers & influences the R-Complex or “Reptilian Brain” and the Limbic System.

    I was going to say some other things about sensory metaphors in relationship to Neuro-Physics, but since this not my article and because I’m kinda tired, I think I’ve said enough. I just hope that what I had said is useful or helpful or least interesting.

    Again, Roger, thanx for this neuromarketing article. It is truly a stellar piece of work!!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for the detailed comment, Re-ev!


  15. Re-Evolution SEO says

    It was my pleasure, Roger! Thank you for this very well written article on Metaphor Marketing! And I know that this is a little off topic, but the company that I own is doing a cross application research project on Neuromarketing, NLP, and Search Engine Optimization. We are going to be posting some of the research articles on our website and I would love it if you would do a short interview for us to include in the article set. If you are willing I can email you the details.

  16. Linda says

    I’m NEW to Neuromarketing…….but fascinated! You say to use adjectives. Yet I followed one of the links and a Carrie person said NOT to use them, to keep things clear and straight to the point without them. Reviews on Amazon say that you, with your blog, are the GO-TO guy on Neuromarketing. Who do I believe? :{ Is there a course on this… you can learn everything…..from one person and avoid the confusion?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Hi, Linda. The answer is simple. Adjectives are often used in a way that does nothing but pad the copy and do indeed slow down the reader. If you want to increase sales, use adjectives sparingly but choose vivid, sensory ones.


  17. […] a life. Think visual rather than factual (for more information on writing more visually, check out this great post by Roger […]

  18. […] Sensory words make your copy more memorable, impactful, and persuasive. […]

  19. […] The Neuroscience Marketing blog reminds us that this technique is effective even when you aren’t trying to appeal to that particular sense at all. […]

  20. […] cake, as if you see a dazzling display of colors, as if you feel a rough texture. Sensory words make your copy more memorable and persuasive, because they require more brain processing power than ordinary […]

  21. Max says

    Can you guide me to actual research articles finding significance in the difference of words being used? #Powerwords?


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