Where Have All the Glowers Gone?
One time, way back in 1987, Harper’s Magazine commissioned seven of the top New York ad agencies and assigned each one to create a full-page ad for one of the seven deadly sins.
It was such a hilarious yet disturbing undertaking that once you see the ads, I bet you’ll remember them for the rest of your life (so click here at your own risk).
One I still think of often is the ad Saatchi & Saatchi did for the sin of wrath. It consisted of two black-and-white photos, one over the other. The top picture was a shot of Adolf Hitler in full rant mode. His fists were clenched and his face contorted in barely controlled rage. The bottom one showed a young man with almost exactly the same expression, except that this guy wasn’t an evil dictator. He was an anti-Vietnam War protestor screaming passionately for an end to an unjust war.
The ad’s copy consisted of a caption that started under the Hitler picture and concluded under the anti-war protester. Wrath, it said, was “The only emotion powerful enough to start a war … and stop one.”
That ad came to mind the other day when I got what must have been my third or fourth email with a subject line that said something like, “Willis, can you believe what so-and-so said?!?” or, “Willis, this is inexcusable!” or some similar headline designed to reinforce my sense of righteous indignation.
I read them all because it’s my job. And the ones that I thought said something important, I shared with a few friends on Facebook or posted links to on Twitter, because that’s what we do these days when we feel strongly about something.
I really did care about the topics in the emails — just not enough to actually do anything more than click my mouse a couple of times.
Why? Was it donor/compassion/anger fatigue? Maybe. But unfortunately, in these cases, the fatigue was more in the writers than the reader.
It was really sad. Those copywriters said all the right things and followed all the right formulas. But, compared to the one appeal I did respond to that week, the writing was just not quite … there.
The message used plenty of angry words, but where was the fury behind them? What was missing? Where was the real motivation to give? That sense of hollowness, in turn, brought to mind that quote by Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
One of the most challenging parts of copywriting is that, to be truly effective, you have to be a bona fide advocate for your client or organization. That means, as Frost points out, you have to genuinely feel what you want your readers to feel.
Rage can be an overpowering emotion. And if you’re raising funds for an organization that does advocacy, a social-services group focused on inequality, or an animal rights group fighting abuse and abandonment, you absolutely must be able to inspire that feeling of overwhelming anger if you want donors to do more than pass along your message to like-minded people. If you want to put that expression of glowering rage on their faces, the one that compels them to donate to the cause, you need to have it on yours as you write.
Fast-paced, multimedia communications encourage people to be a mile wide and an inch deep. We care deeply about a lot of important things, but the feeling is transitory. We share our righteous indignation on a few social media, feel good about ourselves for a moment and move on. We feel we’ve done our part.
In the world of advocacy fundraising, outrage has become the emotion du jour. To inspire action though — to make your reader reach for his or her wallet — you’ve got to kick it up to something more. Rage inspires action. Outrage only inspires retweeting.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.