Why Copywriting Is Like Judo, Not Like Kung-Fu


I feel the need to confess (to) something.

I’ve read many copywriting books. I estimate about 60 – 70 so far. I do this because I love to learn. I know that some of the best copywriters in the world don’t read that much but this is my fix. Some people take drugs, others sleep with random strangers in Vegas while I read self-improvement and business books.

Yet, while I’ve educated myself considerably on the topic, I’ve failed many times. When I’ve failed, I’ve blamed the marketplace, I’ve blamed the product or I’ve blamed the other person. And if you were in my place and if you had dealt with some of the products that I’ve tried to sell, you’d agree with this.

But the truth is that I failed for a very different reason. It wasn’t lack of information nor negative circumstances.

I’ve failed because I’ve denied human nature, to its core. I’ve rejected how people are and I’ve tried to replace this with how I think people should be.

Okay, let me take a step back and explain what I mean by all of this.

Do you remember when you had a crush on that girl / guy (for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use girl)? You tried everything to get her attention. You were nice. You were sweet. You bought flowers and chocolate and tickets at the cinema. You’ve fantasized about how you can impress her into mind movies that would put even Walter Mitty to shame.

And yet … she wasn’t interested. She was more interested in that jerk who didn’t gave a crap about her than who did not deserve her than she was in you.

It made no sense.

You did all the right things. You were everything that a girl wanted. It was like going against the law of nature … like gravity. So you’ve tried harder. You’ve bought more flowers. You’ve gave more compliments. You’ve acted more and more like a gentleman.

This more likely just pushed her in the arms of someone else.

Well, what the heck happened there?

You were replacing patterns and rituals of human behaviors that work with what you consider should work. In other words, you had your own standard about how people should be and act and you were ignoring what was really happening.

Or in a fancy way to put it – you were imposing subjective beliefs in a objective circumstance. The question wasn’t if she was doing the right things or not. The question was if your behavior was effective with what she desired – in which case, it was not.

It is like gravity. You can’t argue with it. You can’t negotiate with it. You can only comply. Human behavior is what it is. It may be right or wrong … it may offend your sensibilities … it may go against everything you believe to be right and your most deep and cherished inner beliefs, but it is what it is.

And when it comes to human behavior, you can either play ball and do what works … or you can try to cheat gravity and do something that should work but won’t.

So to get back to copy, when I was writing, I was writing to people that acted in a way that I wished them to act. I saw them as characters of an Ayn Rand novel, rational, mighty, logical, with a cost benefit oriented thinking.

They were not. People aren’t what we want them to be, they’re what they are. This means full of prejudice … horny … looking for a steal … looking for a lose – win situation (win for them) … unfair … biased … unreasonable … and more.

I’m not trying to bash people here. Don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying that too many times in marketing we’re relying on patterns of behavior and thinking that are simply not there. We expect people to follow our path assuming that they’re like we want them to be.

This is the capital sin in copywriting and in sales. When in Rome … act like the romans. When selling to human beings, sell to their humanity, not to what you wish that humanity to be.

The only basic question most human beings ask is “what’s in it for me?”. Everything must be framed this way. Don’t ask if it is fair. Don’t ask if they are selfish. We’re people too and we’re not that different.

Let’s take a weight loss product. An overweight person wants to lose weight without doing anything. He wants to take a pill and to be loved by supermodels. He wants to look like a greek sculpture without putting in the work. Yes, he’s lazy. And yes, that’s quite stupid if you think about it.

But you explaining that it doesn’t work this way doesn’t help. If one believes in his irrational fantasy of taking a pill and looking like Brad Pitt, then you can’t change his mind through logic. A mind defeated by logic will just attach itself stronger to its older convictions. You can only play into the patterns of behavior that that person exhibits or don’t sell that product. It’s as simple as that.

Just like with the dating game from earlier.

Maybe you want to give her flowers and hold her hand while she’s looking at the stars. She wants to wear a dress that shows way too much, hit the club, get drunk and pass out in the bathroom.

You can judge her for wanting that, if you have a different moral system. There’s nothing stopping you from putting a stamp of good or bad. But you really have only two choices – find a girl that wants to hold hands and watch the stars or go to that bar and get drunk with her. What you wish her was doesn’t change what she is.

This is a good life lesson and a critical marketing one. I’ve heard so many customers saying “my market is so ungrateful, they only care about the price”. I sympathize with this because a lot of the people I meet care only about the price too. But being upset about the price or that they’re ungrateful won’t make them grateful overnight. You can simply play to their greed and give them a great value proposition (or price) or you can find another marketplace that is not as greedy.

It’s useless to want others to be different than they are now. You have control only over yourself. You can shape your own mind and psyche but not that of others. To others – you either submit and offer them value, the value they want, not the value you want or you change your market.

The rules of the game are set.

You can not build desire in copywriting. You can only channel it. This was first stated a long time ago by Eugene M. Schwartz but most people don’t get it. When you make someone buy a product or take an action, you’re not pushing that person from “I don’t care” to “I’m in love with the idea”. You are leveraging emotions and needs and cravings and you are positioning your own product as a solution.

So is with all human behavior and interactions.

You don’t change people. You take what is already there and you use it to push them towards a direction or another. Copywriting, selling, marketing and persuasion in general is not kung-fu. It’s not about throwing persuasive punches that will make someone say “yes, yes, please take my money”. Even if you can succeed in that, people snap out of it fast.

No, copywriting is like judo. You use what’s already there to your advantage. If they have a craving for honey, then your product is ideally suited to fulfill that craving, in a way that is far superior than the competition. If they want to feel respected by others, then your product earns them the respect of others. It’s not your job to say if it is right that they wish to be respected by others or not. You can only fulfill it or get out of the way.

Many … all times I’ve failed with people, professionally or personally was because I was operating from a perspective of how I want them to be, not how they really are. I was saying “you should think and act and believe like this because this is right” when they were saying “no, no, you don’t get it, this is me and I’m not going to change”.

So now, I’m carrying a daily battle to drop this form of idealism and to understand that when you deal with another person, you do it in their playing field, playing by their rules, not yours. Understand this and you’ll become a vastly superior copywriter.

Best regards,