Why Good Ad Copy Works


All too often, writing the copy for an ad campaign seems to be an afterthought. As any skilled copywriter knows, though, good copy will outperform mediocre text every time. Now, Read Montague, professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, offers an explanation of the underlying mechanism behind effective copy:

…we made some headway at understanding broadly the underpinnings of why certain messages might gain behavioral power. They come to act like rewards, and the rest of the brain adapts itself to predict and acquire them. Events that foreshadow these potent messages also accrue value because our brains are designed to transfer value to events that predict reward. Just like, “A friend of my friend is also my friend,” the brain has its own version, “A predictor of a predictor is also a predictor,” where the predictors predict future reward. This is exactly why even complex verbal descriptions like the “…salad of perfectly grilled woodsy-flavored calamari…” can set off reward seeking circuits. It’s a proxy for the reward to come.

That quote is from Montague’s Why Buy This Book?, an in-depth look at human decision making. Of course, this knowledge doesn’t diminish the art of copywriting. Indeed, since every reader brings his or her own reward system to the text, copy that sends one reader’s brain into overdrive may do the opposite for another reader. An experienced copywriter will choose text that has maximum appeal for the specific target audience.

Not all rewards are as obvious as delicious food item. Classic ad copy like the evergreen, “They Laughed When I Sat Down to Play!” ad for piano lessons predicts another kind of reward: improved social status and sex appeal.

How should those responsible for copy writing use this neuromarketing insight? I think the key lesson is to keep the reward in mind. The target customer is always seeking rewards – tasty food, an attractive partner, more money, etc. To the extent that the copy can help the reader visualize that reward, it will be effective.

(Related article: Shakespeare Copywriting)

  1. Todd Cabral says

    Great post Roger. Keeping the reader (and their reward) in mind is a great rule of thumb when developing ad copy. This grows increasingly difficult in business to business marketing, when the reward is often more professional than personal. Rather than offering the promise of a juicy steak or attractive partner, B to B marketers must often play to less primal desires – recognition for a job well done or less time spent on repetitive tasks.

    Just curious if you have any information on the reward systems at play while we’re on the job, and how that might affect ad copy.

  2. Generally, money and related areas like job security, advancement, etc. are proxies for more primitive rewards in lower orders. E.g., the billionaire driving the Lamborghini has replaced the “alpha male” in the primate troop.

    So, ad copy implying job security, bonuses, promotions, etc. would trigger those work-related reward systems, IMO.

    Here’s another post not related to copy, but about selling in the workplace: Are Women Better At Sales?

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