Brexit and copywriting: 7 reasons why feelings Trump facts (updated 2018)

persuasive copywriting

When we talk about buying or voting choices, many of us stick to the notion that decisions are rational.

But this is wrong!

Political campaigners still canvass doorsteps and try to win over their voters with logic. Many copywriters do the same thing when trying to persuade consumers to buy.

Yet events in 2016 and into the present show us that logic doesn’t get the heart beating or the blood boiling. But copywriting is most potent when it does just that.

And this ability to rouse the emotions is probably why the Donald Trump and Leave EU campaigns won…

1. Facts don’t (always) matter

According to Politifact, 69% of Trump’s statements are either “mostly false”, “false”. or untrue (“pants on fire”)

Likewise, many of the Leave EU campaigns’ claims also proved untrue. Chief among these is the statement that leaving the EU would allow the government to inject £350 million into the NHS.

During the run-up to the referendum, Michael Gove said “we’ve had enough of experts”, which does sounds stupid. But while his rivals mocked him, it seems Gove captured what many people were feeling.

Let’s face it – politicians and the media swamp us with pie charts and digits come election time and it’s often hard to make head or tail of so much info.

This is especially true when it’s spun and spat at us in different ways from all corners.

So to make sense of it all, we look for ideas we can see, feel and grab hold of…  

2. Sizzling copy speaks of dreams, not five-point plans

When Martin Luther King made his most famous speech, he didn’t describe in great detail how he, or America as a whole, was going to achieve his aims.

In other words, he didn’t say “I have a plan”.

Instead, King drew a vision of a perfect future in the minds of his listeners. And this is exactly what Trump and those in the Leave campaigns achieved…

During the election, many criticised Trump for making promises without a plan. In the UK, Remainers lambasted Leavers for the same reasons.

But just like MLK, Trump focused on clear goals and outcomes.

Prime examples are the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the oft-repeated phrase “we’re going to build a wall”.

Meanwhile, the Vote Leave campaign used the slogan “Let’s Take Back Control”.

That’s ingenius copywriting. 

This approach was bound to pull on the heart strings and offer a sense of power to those who feel ignored by ‘The Man’. And it did just that for millions of voters on both sides of the Atlantic.

So it doesn’t matter whether you agree with the underlying message or not. These techniques work.

Effective communication relies on knowing what makes your reader tick and in finding ways to tap into those feelings. This is the essence of great copywriting.

Yet by contrast, both Hilary Clinton and the Remain camp stuck mostly to rational ideas. Remain focused on trade. Clinton hinged her campaign on her experience and Trump’s lack of it.

In fact, the two losing campaign slogans were very similar; Clinton led with“Stronger Together” and Remain went for “Britain Stronger in Europe”.  

The word ‘stronger’ does have power. Yet the issue is that there’s nothing in either slogan to paint a clear image in the reader’s mind. And for people who don’t like the status quo, there’s nothing to aspire to in more of the same. 

In his book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, Scott Adams calls Trump a “Master Persuader”. And the president certainly did a lot of things right. Love him or loathe him, Trump’s election win was no accident; his ability to persuade arguably made him the most powerful man on Earth.

Here’s an example of Trump’s persuasive nous in action…

Oscar Wilde quote

The image of the “big, beautiful wall” was a masterstroke in persuasion. Critics decried both the ethics and the practicalities of building a wall and called Trump a clown for suggesting such a thing.

But this was good for the Republicans because it moved the media’s focus away from Clinton and on to Trump, who thrives on his knack for clickbait headlines and strong imagery. This is because, as Adams says, “people automatically gravitate towards the place they are imagining most vividly”. 

And as Stephen Fry states in the video below, the best way for the media to stop Trump would’ve been to ignore him, but his many inflammatory statements and use of social media made this impossible. 

Immigration is a key talking point for many Americans. And all of Trump’s attention-grabbing statements about building a wall led many to see him as the strongest voice on the issue. This was exactly what he wanted.

3. Simple concepts stick in the mind

An article on the Drum website talks about how “simplicity won the day for Trump”. And the same may be true of the campaigns to leave the EU.

In Trump’s case, he may not have the same grip on domestic or foreign affairs as his rivals.

But by refusing to describe the wall he planned to build, Trump showed he was far from a clown.

If he’d talked in great detail about the nuances of border control, this would’ve been harder for listeners to grasp and remember.

The lack of detail was a masterstroke because it forced people to picture a wall of their own making. This made the words he was using even more powerful and the issue (immigration) more important in people’s minds.

This works in both writing and speaking. As Stephen King says in his book On Writing, “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s“. So by allowing the observer to fill in the gaps of his descriptions for themselves, Trump is also encouraging them to form a bond with him.

Albert Einstein

As we saw over the course of 2017, Brexit is a hugely complex issue that’s awash with many social, political and economic implications. Yet Gove’s statement about experts typified the Leave campaign’s simple approach.

The lesson here is that simple wins and confusion rarely cuts through the din. This has always been the case, but it’s ever truer in a world of clickbait headlines and soundbites.   

So, if you want to persuade people to do what you want, you can start with simple copy that stirs both emotions and people into action.

4. A bright future tops more doom and gloom

The Leave and Trump campaigns promised to restore something lost. This romantic vision of a long-lost past was retrogressive. But it was also easy – and for some, pleasant – to imagine. Meanwhile, the references to old times can stir our penchant for ‘seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles’.

This contrasted sharply with the Remain campaign’s focus on fear of the unknown. There was nothing appealing in the stark picture of doom and gloom they said lay just around the corner if we dared to vote Leave.

You might say that was the point.

After all, fear is one Paul Ekman’s Six Basic Emotions and is a powerful driver. Both the Remain and Leave campaigns used fear to get their messages across. But as it turned out, fear of the status quo was probably scarier than fear of the unknown for millions of voters. 

As fellow freelance copywriter Tom Albrighton points out in this ace blog post, the Remain campaign may have had more impact by creating a vision of our glistening future as part of the EU.

Instead, it focused almost solely on the UK and on trying to discredit the other side of the debate.  

5. We love heroes and villains

storytelling

Like all good copywriters, Trump and the Leavers know the power of storytelling. As another copywriter Andy Maslen points out in Persuasive Copywriting, there are four key ingredients to a good story:

  1. Hero
  2. Threat or problem
  3. Narrative
  4. Solution

Trump used this formula to a tee. He cast the threat as foreigners who, in his mind, are trying to change our way of life.

In his narrative, hardworking people have lost their jobs, homes and health at the hands of the threat or “villain”. Trump’s solutions are to build a wall and repeal global trade deals.

And the hero? None other than Trump himself.  

6. Repetition is good. I say repetition is a good thing

Foghorn Leghorn

Our brains are hardwired to respond to repetition. When we hear or read something over and over again, we’re more likely to remember or believe it.

There are YouTube montage videos of Trump saying the word ‘China’ ad infinitum. This gives some the impression that there isn’t any substance to his words. 

After all, repetition’s a bit Foghorn Leghorn or Fred Elliot, isn’t it?

Yet when Trump says things like “it’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. I inherited a mess”, this isn’t necessarily a sign that he doesn’t have a clue. In fact, it’s a proven technique that many copywriters use to drum home their message.

7. People like people who are like them

girls in yellow dresses

Much of the appeal of Trump and Boris Johnson (a key member of the Leave campaign) lies in the ways that voters identify with them as people.

A great book on persuasion is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr Robert Cialdini. In it, Cialdini defines “Liking” as the fifth of his “Six Principles of Persuasion”.

The notion that anyone actually likes Trump confounds many of his critics, while Johnson is far from liked by all in the UK.

In Trump’s case, some argue that people like his policies more than they like him.

But as humans are irrational, personality beats policy when it comes to voting intention. Studies also show that people vote for candidates with “personality traits they value in themselves”.

So what is there to like about Trump?

Again, whether you love him or hate him, Trump’s a straight talker who doesn’t sound like a politician. This gives him a human touch and allows him to reach voters who feel ignored be the political elite.

And his ability to get to the heart of the issues on many voters’ minds shows them he understands their plight.

Meanwhile, Trump’s business background and extreme positions on some issues ensured many saw – and still see – him as the person most likely to both fight their corner and get things done.

In the UK, people like Johnson for very different reasons. While very much part of the political elite, his bumbling and blustering make people see him as a “character”. This ensures he stands out among a throng of bland politicians.

Boris johnson

This may not have been enough for Johnson to become Prime Minister after David Cameron resigned, but his status as “a laugh” surely helped him become Mayor of London.  

After Johnson announced his decision to back the Leave vote, the Remain camp saw it as a major setback; the fact that many voters liked Johnson made Brexit more likely.

If you want to be more persuasive, there are many lessons here.

First, you need to understand what keeps your reader up at night. You can then address their point(s) of pain to grab their attention, maintain their interest and stir desire for your product/service.

Second, it’s best to write like your audience speaks. Most professional copywriters agree that copy should address the reader directly and be written like a conversation between you and them. This ensures they not only understand your message, but find it easier to trust you because you’re letting them know you’re just like them.   

Conclusion

Trump’s election and Brexit show that emotions rule when it comes to making decisions. While facts can credit or discredit a message, they are not always important.

Whether you want to convince people to vote for you or buy from you, the principles of persuasion remain the same.  

This is the case whether in the form of an eye-catching headline, a story that stirs the senses, or in the shape of text or speech that addresses your readers’ pain points in simple, human terms.

The best copy persuades your audience to do what you want them to do. And any marketer looking to improve their skills of persuasion can learn a lot from both the Trump and Leave campaigns’ abilities to arouse emotions.

 

What did you think of this article? Leave your comments below:

4 replies
  1. Dr Lucia Morawska
    Dr Lucia Morawska says:

    Great article based on basic principles of rhetoric. Simplicity and emotional appeal are keys to ‘being heard’ and understood. So why do we ignore both so often? An insightful and well argued article.

    Reply

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