Do People Buy Just Because You Say ‘Because?’
Psychology validates John E. Kennedy’s “Reason Why Advertising”
At the dawn of modern marketing, an ex-officer of Canada’s Royal North West Mounted Police was the first to figure out and articulate what would make consumers buy an advertised product.
In his short book “Reason-Why Advertising,” he argues against catchy advertising and general publicity. The idea is not to just get your name in front of lots of people. It’s to convince people to buy. You have to target the people who might want your product — and who can afford it.
“That mysterious ‘something’ is just Printed Persuasion, and its other name is ‘Reason-Why Salesmanship-in-Type.’”
This all sounds obvious today. Even so, marketers spend billions of dollars on ads that talk about how long they’ve been in business, or how their software is a cutting-edge solution, or how their product meets technical guidelines.
And all the customer wants to know is how the product will solve their problem. They might laugh at cute or funny, but before they spend their money, they want to know why.
Not much is known of John E. Kennedy’s life
He told his most famous employer — Albert Lasker of the Lord & Taylor ad agency — that he had come up with his insights into successful advertising while camping out in the Canadian North for so many nights.
He began his copywriting career as the ad manager for the Hudson’s Bay Company department store in 1890. He went on to write for Post Grape-Nuts, Postum coffee drink, Dr. Shoop’s patent medicine, and the Regal Shoe Company.
He enters marketing history in 1904 or 1905. He traveled to Chicago, apparently seeking a job with Lord & Taylor, which was then the largest ad agency in the country.
He sent a note up to A. L. Thomas, one of the senior partners, from the saloon downstairs. He said he knew Thomas did not know what advertising was, but he (Kennedy) would tell him.
That’s a pretty bold thing to say to a prospective employer, and Thomas wanted to just file the note in the trash. However, one of the firm’s younger employees, Albert Lasker, happened to be in Thomas’s office at the same time.
Although he was already successful at the advertising business, Lasker apparently felt insecure. He did not have a basic understanding of why some ads worked and others didn’t, and he knew it. Perhaps attracted by Kennedy’s brash confidence, he agreed to talk to the Canadian.
The historic three words
When Kennedy revealed his definition of advertising, Lasker realized he had struck marketing gold:
“Advertising is persuasion in print.”
Lasker immediately hired Kennedy for the incredible salary of $52,000 per year. In 1905, that was real money. Lasker later asked Kennedy to write a short book to help train other copywriters at Lord & Taylor on his Reason-Why principle.
As far as I can see, the only problem with Kennedy’s approach is that he didn’t take the next step.
If somebody is asking why, what do you say? You say because . . .
Kennedy never actually advises copywriters to use the word because. Maybe it seemed too obvious to him.
When people ask why, they want to hear because.
That may sound obvious, but nobody established it until Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, carried out a study in 1978.
Back then, the only way you could make a copy of a paper document was to let a photocopy machine scan the document. Then the photocopier printed out a black-and-white copy. Photocopy machines were incredibly useful and popular in offices and other places where people needed copies. Photocopiers were especially popular on college campuses. Students wanted to copy sections of books to study. Teachers needed to make copies of tests.
As a novelist, I made a copy of my latest manuscript before mailing it off to a publisher. That was a lot easier than using carbon paper. At times, I had to wait 30 minutes or more for one of the machines at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University. By copying 200+ separate pages, I’d then make the people standing behind me wait a long time.
Langer’s famous experiment
Langer had students try to break into the long lines for busy photocopiers on campus.
Those students had instructions to say one of three different things:
- “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox (photocopy) machine?”
- “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
- “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a hurry?”
Take a moment to think about the logic, or lack of logic, in each statement.
- The line is for the Xerox machine, not to buy coffee. Everybody in the line wants to use the Xerox machine, or they’re in the wrong place.
- The same lack of logic applies. What’s different is that the student explicitly says they want to break in front of everybody else, because they have to make copies. In 1., they don’t use the word because.
- This at least has a semblance of logic. In this case, they are breaking into the line because they are in a hurry, which makes sense. Of course, it’s rude. The others already in line are probably also in a hurry. It’s really not a good reason. But it’s a reason.
- An astounding 60% of the people allowed the students to break in just because they said they needed to make copies.
- An even more incredible 93% of the people allowed the students to break in line. Remember: the only difference between 1. and 2. is that in 2., the students said because.
- 94% of the people allowed these students to break into the line ahead of them.
How many times have you done something just because someone said because?
“Why do you need my phone number or email address when I’m paying cash?”
“Because we need it for our records.” But they don’t tell you why you should care their records.
“Why should I vote for you?”
“Because I’m the most qualified candidate.” But they don’t tell you whether they’ll pass new laws you are in favor of.
“Why should I buy your new book?”
“Because it’s the latest novel in the series.” But what if I haven’t read the first book in the series?
You get the idea.
The second part of Langer’s experiment
Many who write about this famous experiment give the above results, but fail to tell about the second part of it.
Langer had the students try to break into the long lines as before, but this time they said they had to make 20 copies, not five. You could make five copies in just a minute or so. It’s not that many. But 20 is a higher number. Most of the people in line were probably waiting to make fewer than 20 copies.
The result? The willingness to let the students cut in line dropped like a rock. Only the 3. group, who gave a reason for cutting in line, were allowed to do so. With more time at stake, the people in line did not let the students make their 20 copies ahead of the line — even those who said because.
The people waiting in line needed to be told why the person who asked to break in wanted to do so.
The lesson for sales copy
When you write sales copy, make sure you tell your prospects why:
- Why they have the problem or desire
- Why competing products won’t solve their problem or fulfill their desire
- Why they should buy from you
- Why you care
- Why you created the product
- Why they will regret a decision to not buy your product
- Why you are qualified to solve their problem
- Why the price is so low or high
- Why they should believe you
Make sure you tell them:
- The price is $XX.XX, because…
- They need to order right now, because…
- This supplement will protect their health, because…
The more you tell them because, the more likely they will feel you have explained why they should buy.
However, you need to give good reasons. With real money at stake, you can’t just say because, as if it’s a magic mantra, and expect them to give you their PayPal or credit card information. If you don’t answer their why questions with a powerful because statement, you will lose sales.
And that’s why Reason-Why advertising works so well.
Because it gives prospects reasons to buy the things they want.