NO COPYWRITER WILL ESCAPE THIS FATE. YOU WRITE a nice, punchy headline—“Nothing Fights Stains Like Splam-O.” Then the comment comes back—“Nothing” is negative. Can’t we turn it into a positive? (Like what, “Splam-O Fights Stains Better Than Things”?)

It’s odd. I could write the perfect adjective for Splam-O (“Stain-tastic!”) and they’d feel free to change it—because what difference does one word really make, most of the time? Unless it’s a Volkswagen ad and the word is “Lemon,” something else will probably get the same meaning across just fine.

Yet put a sentence with a “not” or a “don’t” in it in front of those same people, and suddenly they’ll be impressed by the mystical power of that one single word to repel all customers—regardless of the actual meaning of the sentence. That’s not grammar. It’s voodoo.

The arguments against this are obvious—it deprives a writer of one of the most effective rhetorical devices in the English language, for no good reason. Would GM still own the car market if only they’d said “You Would Really Rather Drive a Buick?” Would the James Bond movies have been even more successful if they’d had titles like “Dr. Yes” and “Tomorrow Always Lives”? Would we have won WW2 sooner if only Churchill had proclaimed positively, “I have plenty to offer you, best of all blood, tears, toil and sweat?”

As I say, the arguments are obvious. So obvious that they always get the same response: “Yeah, I know. But change it, wouldja? It's just one word.” That's why I feel it's time to break the Code of the Copywriters and reveal the truth that we've been covering up all this time:

Words, even single words, actually do have the power to attract or repel readers.

This “negative” thing has been the result of a massive disinformation campaign by the copywriter’s cabal. We want you to believe that only negative words carry the full force of our mysterious powers—so that you won’t suspect all the other ways in which we writers manipulate readers for our own ends. We can elect presidents, change fashion, make the cool uncool and the obscure famous—with the power of words alone. We gave you “not” and “never,” to keep you from catching on to much bigger tricks. (Listen, I could tell you things about “however” and “especially” that would turn your hair white.)

So let people cut those “negative” words from our copy. They’ll never know the full extent of our ability to influence minds with mere words.

However, true copywriters will understand. Especially me.


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