This is the story of James Young — the man who convinced America that it stunk.
More accurately, he’s the guy who is most responsible for the eradication of underarm odor.
In 1912, James Young was just another struggling copywriter. That is until Edna Murphey entered his life and commissioned him to write ads that would convince people to buy an antiperspirant that her father, a doctor, used to keep his hands dry during surgery.
At the time, pungent body odor was common, mainly because most people considered it unhealthy or unnatural to prevent sweating. In a world accustomed to body odor Young had to convince people to buy an antiperspirant, Odorono (“Odor, oh no”).
His first campaign positioned Odorono a cure for excessive perspiration — something he claimed was a medical condition. This worked for awhile, but sales eventually fell flat.
Faced with the possibility of losing Odorono’s business, Young’s agency conducted a survey and learned that while every woman knew about the antiperspirant, two-thirds felt they had no need for the product.
That’s when Young realized he needed to do more than convince his audience that preventing perspiration was good (a cure for a medical condition). He needed to prove that excessive sweating was bad (a cause for embarrassment).
In a 1919 edition of Ladies Home Journal, he wrote an editorial advertisement stating that body odor was an embarrassing problem no one would discuss in front of you, but would happily gossip about behind your back:
The ad basically said, “Smell bad, and you won’t be able to keep a man.”
Of course, Young caught a lot of flak for it. His female friends and colleagues accused him of insulting every womandra in America.
Yet despite the hate, a year later, Odorono’s sales had skyrocketed by 112%. With the stroke of a pen, James Young had discovered the persuasive power of negative copy.
Why we love negativity
It’s not our fault we’re a bunch of negative Nancies — as it turns out, we’re wired to be.
Something called the “negativity bias” describes our tendency to react more sensitively to bad news than good. It’s a phenomenon that many researchers, like Dr. John Cacioppo, have found to be true.
Years ago the doctor conducted an experiment at Ohio State in which participants were shown pictures aimed at eliciting different emotions. They saw:
- Positive images: like a sports car or a pizza
- Neutral ones: like a plate or hair dryer
- Negative pictures: like a mutilated face or a dead animal
What Dr. Cacioppo found was that when subjects viewed negative images, their brains showed an increase in electrical activity — indicating a stronger reaction.
The reason this happens is likely a result of evolutionary systems designed to keep us safe. Way before we were all marketers and salespeople, we were hunters and gatherers whose survival depended partly on identifying threats (negative stimuli) and swiftly avoiding them. As a result, our brains have developed to make it nearly impossible for us to miss anything negative and potentially dangerous.
We still have use for those systems today, but not nearly to the extent that we once did. Sure, they help us notice seedy characters and keep us from wandering into traffic, but it’s not like we have to spot poisonous fruits in the grocery store, or dodge hungry bears downtown. Even still, these systems remain in place.
That means in every aspect of our lives, bad things tend to capture our attention — including online.
News websites bombard us with negative news headlines, YouTube urges us to watch fail compilations, and marketing messages tell us to smell good and look nice or else we’ll die alone.
Now, we don’t recommend you go that far. However, there are several lessons we can learn from James Young’s Odorono ads about how to leverage negative copy on your landing page to make it more persuasive.
1. It’s okay to stir the pot
When James Young finally tried the negative angle to sell antiperspirant, he was met with backlash from many of his female friends and coworkers. “He has insulted every woman in America,” they told him.
But, numbers don’t lie. When sales rose it became clear the Young had found the answer to marketing antiperspirant to women. It’s an answer he wouldn’t have found had he chosen to use traditional, politically correct marketing methods.
The lesson here is: Don’t be afraid to take a strong negative stance on something. At the end of the day, your landing page is designed to convert, not to make people like you.
2. Triggering your prospect’s pain points can remind them why they need you
Sometimes to boost our prospects’ desire for our product or service, we have to remind them why they’re seeking it out in the first place.
“Tired of living paycheck to paycheck? Worried you won’t have the money to put your child through college?”
A landing page for a money management service might start this way to remind visitors of their current financial situation.
In James Young’s Odorono ads, he leveraged our desire to be wanted by the opposite sex. He reminded people that the reason they were reading his ad was because they wanted to — well, be wanted — and that strong body odor was preventing that from happening.
This technique can work for anything. Simply consider why your prospect has come to your landing page — what their motivation is for being there. Then, try reminding them of it using negative copy.
3. Sometimes negatives are more positive
When James Young first attempted to sell antiperspirant to the masses, he presented it in a positive light. It was the cure for excessive perspiration, which he claimed was a medical condition.
But it wasn’t until he presented that benefit using negative copy that it really made an impact on readers. Instead of saying something like “Cure excessive perspiration,” he urged people to stop sweating — to stop smelling. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to keep a spouse.
Keep in mind, we don’t recommend you insult or scare your prospect into conversion. That won’t work. What we are saying is that you should try presenting your benefit in a negative light to see its impact on conversions.
Outbrain conducted a study a few years ago that compared negative headlines to positive ones. After looking at 65,000 paid link titles, here’s what they found:
Compared with headlines that contained neither positive (“always” or “best”) nor negative (“never” or “worst”) superlatives, headlines with positive superlatives performed 29% worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30% better. The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts.
So how do you use this on your landing page?
If you’re selling a PPC tool to help marketers optimize their campaigns, instead of writing “Start getting more for your advertising dollars” try something like “Stop wasting your advertising dollars.” You may, like James Young, find the negative alternative strikes a chord with your audience.
4. Schadenfreude is your ally
YouTube fail compilations, sports bloopers, America’s Funniest Home Videos — ever wonder why we love watching people screw up?
The reason, an effect known as Schadenfreude, is that sometimes other people’s misfortune boosts our self-esteem. Recent research has even shown that as a pick-me-up, we’ll use social media to seek out the profiles of people who are doing worse than we are.
It’s no wonder James Young’s copy drew his readers in. Just look at this headline from another of his Odorono ads:
Of course we’re going to read more! Why? Because we want not only to satisfy our curiosity, but to give ourselves a little self-esteem boost as well. Reading about others’ misfortunes is a way to do that.
5. Shared negative experiences are powerful
Sometimes by creating a shared negative experience on your landing page, you can form a bond between yourself and your prospect.
Take Young’s advertisements for example.
Another reason they were so powerful was because they were easy to relate to the people in them. Remember — at the time, most people didn’t wear antiperspirant, so what occurred in the ad written above could’ve happened to anyone — and likely did to many.
Today, we can still relate to Young’s words. At least once in our lives — whether it was because we forgot to put on deodorant, or just didn’t expect to be sweating much — we’ve all smelled in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s probably why we spend 18 billion dollars a year trying to smell nice.
6. We all have the desire to fit in
We all want to be liked. Psychologically, it’s known as the “Goal of Affiliation.” As Dr. Jeremy Dean describes:
“We try to elicit liking from other people by behaving in ways we guess will be attractive…
Not only do we want approval from particular people, we also want it from society as a whole. We want the things we do, think, and believe, to be broadly in line with what others do, think, and believe. It’s not impossible to be different, but it's difficult.”
Young’s advertisements, tricky as they were, leveraged the goal of affiliation by convincing people that they wouldn’t be liked if they didn’t smell good.
Will your product make your customers more attractive to others? Will it help their desire to conform? Try framing your offer as something that will help your visitor fit in.
For example, if you’re selling a stain remover, try writing something like “Get rid of embarrassing stains” on your landing page. If you’re offering a self-help program, try using the phrase “Banish unseemly habits.”
Think about it: stains are only embarrassing if other people see them. Bad habits like nail biting aren’t unseemly without an audience. By using certain negative words and phrases, you can play to our goal of affiliation covertly.
Your turn to be negative
Have you used negative copy on your landing page? Which words or phrases have you found to be effective?
Let us know in the comments, then use these tips to create your own persuasive landing page in minutes with Instapage’s designer-friendly software.