Thursday, April 05, 2007

Conclusive proof that persuasive writing doesn't work?


It should, in theory, be the most compelling piece of persuasive writing ever produced. It's based on hard, factual information, uncontested by any serious authority. It alerts the reader to a terrifying danger. And it's only two words long.

Yet it doesn't work. Every day in the UK, thousands of people hand over their money, and thumbnail open a pack bearing this stark message, without a second thought.

Just pause for a moment to think how ineffably weird that is. Imagine if there was a shampoo with a label that warned: "May cause permanent blindness". Or even a breakfast cereal which alerted you to the possibility of piles or vomiting attacks.

Nobody would buy them. And yet here's a product that makes absolutely no bones about the fact that it kills you - dead, so that your life insurance pays out, and your family has to face the future with only memories of you - without it apparently having any impact at all on sales.

What are we to make of this? I can see that, for a sceptic, it would be tempting to conclude it proves that this persuasive writing malarkey doesn't work. After all, if "buy this and die" doesn't get results, what possibly could?

But, not surprisingly, I have a counter-suggestion. Every day, I'd guess, a few smokers - perhaps just a dozen or so - do indeed pick a packet of fags, read "Smoking kills" and think, "OK, this is it. Today's the day I quit for good . . . "

Good persuasive writing can get results, but not until the reader is ready.