50 shades of copywriting

50 Shades

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 18 months since my last confession.”

“What have you done, my child?”

“I’ve read 50 Shades of Grey.”

“Go away and say 10 Hail Mary’s, three Our Fathers, and pray for forgiveness.”

You’ve probably seen the claims that “50 Shades of Grey” is the fastest-selling novel of all time*?

OK, I confess, I’ve read it.

But it was by accident! I didn’t know what it was about when I bought it! Honest!

Here’s what happened.

I was at the airport on my way to Cyprus in April 2012. Although you have to check in hours early, it always seems such a rush once you’ve queued to get through security and everything, doesn’t it? Anyway, I didn’t have much time to choose a book, so when I saw a sign displaying some of the most compelling words I’ve ever read, I picked up “50 Shades” and bought it.

By the way, I posted that story on a forum I belong to. One member replied “Hamlet. Act 3. Scene 2. Line 230.” I don’t have to look up the reference to know it links to “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

But it’s true! I promise!

Here’s what happened next.

I read up to chapter two by the pool, and turned to my friend, saying “Ooer, this book seems to be turning into a Mills & Boon style BDSM fantasy.” She asked me the title, confirmed that’s exactly what it was, and I didn’t dare read the rest in public.

At that stage, I didn’t know the book had been labelled “mummy porn” and had “gone viral” after launching as a discrete e-book. I didn’t know it was the story of the seduction of a virgin by a handsome billionaire (who was only into spanking because of his abusive childhood). I didn’t know it would outsell Harry Potter and the Bible in a matter of weeks*.

It makes no difference whether or not you believe me.

The point is, it was the headline that made me buy it.

I hate being duped by copywriting!

As a copywriter myself, they pay people like me to write stuff like that!

Many moons ago, when I was but a young slip of a girl – not unlike that young Anastasia Steele from the story – I applied to Watford College to study a course in advertising copywriting. As part of the application process, I had to undergo a copy test. One of the questions was: “What is the latest advert you’ve seen than has persuaded you to buy the product?”

I responded, haughtily: “Pah! I’m not taken in by advertising!”

Clearly, I lied.

So what was the headline that had the power to make me buy the book? It simply said: “The book that everyone’s talking about”.

I like to know what everyone’s talking about, so the headline spoke directly to me. Not only that, but it tapped into my marketing expertise. In the training courses I run, I’m forever telling people about “word of mouth” marketing.

“50 Shades” is a prime example of the power of social proof.

And, if I’m wrong, you can tie me up and spank me.

*Only in Britain, and not all-time.

This post was originally published on The Writer.

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