Your Pain Is Not A String For Someone Else To Pull

With great empathy comes great responsibility

From @hakemo via Twenty20

I was recently in a workshop with an influential business maker who appeared quite proud of his ability to manipulate his sales prospects using a combination of neuro linguistic programming and copywriting techniques.

At one point he bragged about how easy it is to get someone to agree with anything you say if you hone in on the most painful aspects of their life and promise to end their pain.

When I asked him where he drew the line between exploitation of his prospect’s pain to his benefit and empathy with their pain to their benefit, this was his response:

“All communication is manipulation. If I’m not trying to manipulate you into buying from me, I’m not doing my job.”


Sorry. No.

If you’re someone who seeks meaning behind words, you know that “communication” is from the Latin “to share.”

Communication is a cooperative act, a partnership, NOT an act of control.

“Manipulation” derives from “handful,” and originally referred to the handling of objects, not people.

To see your job as manipulation is to deny the humanity of the person you’re speaking to.

You’re trying to control them and get them to do your will. The conversation is not two ways.

Stage and street magicians are master manipulators because they convince people of things that are not true. But people buy tickets to magic shows seeking an illusion: they are willing to suspend their disbelief in exchange for the delight of being duped.

When people are in pain because of bad finances or poor health or loneliness, they are vulnerable and willing to suspend their disbelief if you can promise to end their pain.

You can promise them something like, oh…I don’t know…

(“I alone can fix it.”)


“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Just because you can exploit their vulnerability for money (and votes) doesn’t mean you should. So if you’re a copywriter or marketer and you see your job as manipulation, it’s quite telling of how little you value the people you manipulate and how little you value the products you sell (beyond their profit margins).


Our lives are full of struggle. Pain is the physical and emotional byproduct of struggle.

We experience pain in our bodies: the pain of illness or injury.

We experience pain in our psyches: the pain of having a physical or emotional barrier to overcome.

Pain keeps us alert: it prevents us from causing further damage to ourselves by seeking help or healing.

When we can’t get help or can’t find healing, the pain of our struggle causes us to suffer. 
Struggle is a part of being alive. Suffering is a part of living under injustice.

The point of content inspired by pain is to offer help with your target user’s struggle and walk with them in their suffering, not add to it.

It’s not exploitation if you’re offering true empathy.

Let me give you an example of content that exploits pain.

Warning: if you’re squeamish over the acknowledgement of the existence of female genitalia and hygiene, you may want to skip this bit. (Also: feminism, folks. It’s 2017. Catch up.)

This is a vintage ad that’s often shared as an advertising novelty alongside ads that claim the health benefits of cigarettes and peddle stylish cocaine paraphernalia. We raise our eyebrows, shake our heads and chuckle: Lysol? As a douche? Oh, those misguided, old-timey folks…

But let’s take a closer look. Not through a 2017 lens, but from the point of view of this ad’s target user.

Let’s say you’re a woman who whose financial and social well-being depends on your husband’s marital happiness.

You live in a world that places responsibility for domestic satisfaction — in the kitchen, living room and bedroom — squarely on the shoulders of the wife.

Everything in your world, starting with your home economics class in high school…

…tells you that your worth as a human being is based upon how much “peace and order” you can provide to your husband. That’s it. That’s the best you can be.

You do everything you can to fit the image of the perfect housewife:

You cook all the meals.

You wake up earlier than the rest of the household so your husband has hot coffee and breakfast waiting for him when he gets out of bed in the morning.

…Even when you’re pregnant and the smell of coffee in the morning makes you gag.

But even though you’ve devoted yourself to becoming the perfect housewife, your husband won’t touch you. He rarely shows you affection and the few times you’ve been physically intimate he’s expressed a lack of desire.

In the Lysol ad, this woman’s pain is quite clear: she feels shut out from her husband. And she’s terrified.

Whoever wrote this ad understood the woman’s pain and effectively “pokes” at it.

And according to traditional marketing approaches, that’s what good direct response copywriters are supposed to do: agitate pain.

Revered direct response copywriter Dan Kennedy has even come up with a list of 10 questions to ask before writing copy, and the first 4 are all about identifying pain points:

1) What keeps them awake at night, indigestion boiling up their esophagus, eyes open, staring at the ceiling?

2) What are they afraid of?

3) What are they angry about? Who are they angry at?

4) What are their top three daily frustrations?

From Dan Kennedy’s “10 Smart Market Diagnosis and Profiling Questions.”

So from a copywriting standpoint, the problem with the Lysol ad isn’t in the positioning of the housewife’s pain.

It’s in Lysol’s complete lack of empathy.

Here’s where their content moves from agitation into exploitation:


Do they recommend having a heart-to-heart with her husband about the reasons for his distance?

Do they offer empathy or say “you’ve done nothing wrong”?

No: Lysol points the finger and says “Your marriage is falling apart and it’s your fault for not taking care of yourself.”


Talk about kicking a girl while she’s down.

Let’s analyze this cruel ad and see what we can do to make it a little less of a dick move on Lysol’s part.

The first thing you need to understand is that the ad follows a classic copywriting formula created by the legendary and above-mentioned copywriter Dan Kennedy called “Problem-Agitation-Solution” (PAS).

The PAS formula is one of the easiest, most flexible ways to:

  • Present your understanding of a customer’s PROBLEM,
  • Further explore the emotional implications of the problem ( aka AGITATION), and then
  • Present a SOLUTION (usually your product or offer or — in the case of blogging, your content).

So here’s how the Lysol Douche(bag) Ad shakes out:

Problem: Dave is shutting you out and you don’t know why.

Agitation: You’ve failed to realize that “one intimate neglect” has shut you out of “married love.” (2017 translation: Dave’s physically repulsed by you and your unhygienic female parts.) Don’t you dare blame your husband — you need to look in the mirror. You’re not trying hard enough to “safeguard your dainty feminine allure.”

Solution: Lysol douche will protect your marriage and keep you desireable for your husband.

Now: I’m going to pretend the execs at Lysol, in a rare moment of compassion, hired me to rewrite this ad.

They still want to sell the same product (douche) to the same target buyer (a 1950’s housewife), so despite my postmodern feminist take on the whole scenario, I’m not going to solve the problem of systemic sexism in this ad.

But I am going to replace the exploitative aspects with a little bit of empathy.

And I’m going to do it using the same PAS formula:


Your husband is shutting you out and you don’t know why.

Agitation (Empathy):

You must be feeling so alone and ashamed right now. But we want you to know that you aren’t alone: most women experience vaginal odor at some point. And almost every marriage goes through a rough patch, especially when there’s an embarrassing problem that’s hard to talk about.

You shouldn’t have to bear the burden of this problem by yourself.


Lysol is here to help: our douche will help you feel more confident so you can face the rough patches in your marriage — together. Sign up to receive discounts on our products and practical advice on how to help your household — and your marriage — clean up its act.

I’m still positioning Lysol as a possible solution to a problem within the target user’s marriage — but not the only one.

Lysol alone can’t fix this — and that’s okay.

I’m still implying that the husband’s distance may be due to his reluctance to address a lack of feminine hygiene — but instead of blaming the buyer, I’m showing that I’m on her side and that I’m here to help.

Because my goal isn’t just to sell a product, it’s to build trust between the brand and the customer. Empathy = more trust = more sales — and more positive impact.

Exploitation adds to someone’s suffering and then promises to fix it — with unrealistic solutions and manipulative conditions.

Empathy takes away their suffering by letting them know they aren’t alone in their struggle — and together you’ll find a solution.


As we’ve learned from the clickbait that clings like barnacles to every news site we visit, exploitation can be effective in getting the quick click or sale.

Companies — and for that matter, politicians and lobbyists, who rely on advertising that exploits negative emotions like disgust, shame, paranoia and outrage are often more interested in manipulating their customers into CLICKING/BUYING NOW over maintaining a growing relationship with them.

Exploitative businesses want results. They couldn’t care less about impact.

Businesses that treat their impact as just as important as their growth and profits understand that customer relationships are about ongoing conversations — not just just conversions.

Imagine the result of the original Lysol ad:

“GAH! THAT’s why Dave doesn’t want to sleep with me anymore??? Oh, I’m so embarrassed! I’m running out and getting a bottle of Lysol right now!”

The result: Lysol has the quick sale they were hoping to get.

But what happens if after undergoing what must be a very uncomfortable experience for her girl parts, Mrs. Dave still can’t get any lovin’ from her hubby?

There lies the impact.

“I feel duped. And used. And my lady parts hurt. Lysol is a terrible company.”

Now imagine the results of the re-written ad: In my empathy-fueled scenario, there are a variety of possible outcomes, but all of them lead to ongoing brand interaction.

“Wow. I feel closer than ever to Dave. I’m signing up for more advice from Lysol. What a great company.”


“Dave’s an emotionally unavailable jerk. At least I know that now. After I drink this Old Fashioned, smoke this Pall Mall, and call a divorce lawyer, I’m signing up for more advice from Lysol. What a great company.”


“Whoa. I never knew Dave was such a clean-freak. I feel a little embarrassed, but it’s better than having him shun me. I’ll run out to the store and grab some of that Lysol stuff.”


“Dave’s gay. In 1950’s suburban America. Our marriage has a much bigger issue than a lack of feminine hygiene. Thanks, Lysol for helping me to make this discovery and stop blaming myself.”

And then a few weeks later:

“Oh look! There’s a coupon for a Lysol product. *CLIP*”


Quick sale? Not really.

Loyal customer?


So are we clear now? If you express genuine empathy for your customer’s physical or emotional pain and demonstrate generosity with your time and resources to make a positive impact in their life, you’ll earn their long-term trust.

It’s not hard.

Because if we’re learning anything about the past year, using your power to manipulate and control people will always, ALWAYS, backfire on you.