Copywriting For Causes – Getting People To Care

Copywriting for causes

I’m not sure how much has really been written on this topic in the SEO industry, so I thought I’d take a stab at it, as a writer who has published millions of pixels’ worth of cause-driven copy. You’re standing in interesting shoes when you take on the job of using language to call readers into an attitude of caring. Yes, in a sense, you are still wearing your salesman shoes…but you’re not selling a product; you’re promoting an idea in hopes that others will be moved enough by what you write to take some definitive action.

At left is a small ad I created some years ago for a worthy cause: a seaside community in a world-class tourist destination was attempting to stop the National Park Service from exterminating an entire population of very beautiful deer that had lived in the area for generations. This cause had built into it a million potential annual visitors to the region. Every year, huge numbers of tourists travel to this area to enjoy the wildlife and incredible natural setting. In addition, we had the year-round population, much of which was strongly devoted to the preservation of the deer.

Ultimately, we both succeeded and failed. The bureaucratic juggernaut that is the NPS refused to be swayed from their plans, despite formal pleas from the National Humane Society, Dr. Jane Goodall, state government officials and a host of local organizations; the lovely white deer are now all gone and I’m not sure I’ll ever stop smarting over this loss. On the other hand, the community effort, the bumper stickers, meetings, joint projects and showdowns have to be seen as a success. People truly cared, and we helped to encourage and facilitate this strong stand for ethics.

“Show Your Children The White Deer Before It’s Too Late.”

So reads the ad copy in my example, and it’s letting receptive individuals know that, “Oh, no, human beings are about to mess up something else that has been so nice. Yes, bring the children to this mystical seashore now if you ever want them to see the white deer, because soon it will be too late.” To anyone who holds in any way to the seventh generation principle, there is a strong call present here to ensure that today’s children, and tomorrow’s children, can experience something unspoiled for them. So much of environmentally-related copy hangs on this point.

During the white deer campaign, we promoted a number of related messages, suggesting that no one would want to vacation in a fancy hotel in the middle of a bloodbath; that no one would want to take hikes on trails littered with carcasses; that no one would feel safe walking in a national park full of hidden sharpshooters. We really worked hard to paint a very clear picture of the undesirable aspects of the extermination. Gratifyingly, so many people responded with heartfelt opposition to the killing of the deer and though our work did not save the deer, I believe that it strengthened the community and encouraged individuals to weigh important moral questions in their minds. In the end, I believe that’s what cause-driven copy is all about: creating a more thoughtful and ethical world.

Let’s spend 50 seconds taking a look at one of America’s best remembered environmental advertisements, sometimes called the ‘Crying Indian’ campaign:

The combination of visual and vocal content in this old commercial still works on me to this day. Despite the considerable controversy that has come to surround this famous ad (questions as to whether this commercial stereotyped Native peoples and other issues), as a person with indigenous roots, I want to jump out of my chair every time I see it. It gets to me. It really does. What does the spoken copy say?

“People start pollution. People can stop it.”

There’s the call to action: stop polluting. It may be a little non-specific – there was no poll to take, no petition to sign, no tie-in to a specific agency or plan – but what a jumping off point this ad was for further thought about the way we live, the way we litter, the way we pollute, the way we’ve blown it! That image of the peaceful (if stereotyped) Indian man, living at one with nature, contrasted with the foul ugliness of urban pollution, coupled with the call to action, really stood out in our minds as a society, to the tune of this video being uploaded in the 21st century to YouTube repeatedly and being viewed thousands and thousands of times. I consider this commercial to be one of the best examples I’ve ever encountered of successful empathy-based marketing. How’s that, you ask? Let me explain.

Empathy-based Marketing
In many cases, when we write sales copy, our job is to identify the needs of the user and solve his problems. Got warts? We can fix that. Need a new washing machine? We can fix that. Need your dog walked? We can fix that. The user needs help and the business owner offers the solution.

By contrast, cause-driven marketing frequently relies on enlisting the user to help solve the problem facing a community, organization or society as a whole. The user is the active element in the scenario – not the business owner. The user’s empathy must be engaged to the point where he understands how this problem is affecting some thing, some group, some area. Think of how Americans have responded to national disasters in the past decade, offering money, food, shelter, volunteer time and other forms of assistance to victims after reading about their plight and seeing it on TV. Sympathy is involved to a certain extent, but empathy is the really strong force that enables someone living in California to say of disaster victims in Lousiana, “How horrible. How would I feel if this happened to me and my family?” I would suggest that it’s that ability to call up and envision personal loss and suffering that drives the most meaningful participation where causes are being worked for.

In the ‘Crying Indian’ video, we follow the Indigenous gentleman through the forest, along the pristine river, in the quiet, and then share with him the onslaught of smog, noise, traffic and garbage. We’re not just watching the man…we have become the man and are sharing in his shock and distress. Via empathy, we have become one with his feelings and his cause and we are made ready, through this clever assemblage of pictures and words, to solve his problem…which, of course, turns out to be a problem for all of us. Whether you are talking about pollution, crime, illiteracy, disease, poverty or any other issue affecting an individual or small groups, through the experience of empathy, thinking people come to see the truth in the concept that what affects one of us affects us all. If we are moved deeply enough, conscience then causes us to take action, and a thorough campaign will lay the actions out in the easiest possible manner for the participant.

To anyone who is becoming involved in marketing for a cause, I would suggest taking a careful look at the video and considering how and why it is so moving. Start considering how empathy fits in with what you are doing.

It’s My Party
In 1963, the #1 hit on pop music charts in the USA was a Leslie Gore song which I’m almost positive you’ve heard: It’s My Party. The song describes the angst of having your boyfriend leave in the middle of your very own party with a girl named Judy. Apparently, kids (and pop music charters) couldn’t get enough of this song. Oddly, the refrain of the song is self-absorbed in the extreme:

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to
Cry if I want to…

Well, waaah-waaah. Go right ahead and cry. What a whiner!

Ah, but wait. It’s the punchline of the refrain that turns the whole thing around:

You would cry too if it happened to you.

And, voila, we have the empathy bit. You would cry too if that dreamboat boyfriend of yours, Johnny, ditched you for that stupid brat, Judy, at your very own party. How would you feel? You’d feel terrible. Suddenly, all of America was able to picture itself standing in the singer’s shoes, being humiliated at a party. In fact, I guess everyone hated Judy so much after this episode of pop history that Gore had to come back with an update in the form of the song, Judy’s Turn To Cry in which Johnny changes his mind and returns to the heroine’s side. Take that, Judy! Frankly, I’ve never known why the girl would have wanted Johnny back – he sounds like a jerk – but I bet that America, having had its empathy engaged in the whole situation, felt relieved.

7 Responses to “Copywriting For Causes – Getting People To Care”

  1. on 06 Jul 2010 at 11:59 am Kim Krause Berg

    Miriam, this is brilliant! I would nominate this for a SEMMY :) And I, too, would cry every time the “Crying Indian” commercial came on. Even as a young person I understood that government never learned how or wanted to share land or its species with those who were here first and those who continue to arrive. This sheer selfishness has bothered me for so long.

  2. on 06 Jul 2010 at 1:08 pm Randy McCarley

    Nicely done Miriam. we still need to get tha team some day!

    And thanks to Kim for highlighting this post on FB. ;)

  3. on 06 Jul 2010 at 1:11 pm admin

    Kim, your praise is very gratifying! Thank you. Yes, I share your feelings about problems with our government’s worldview, but little by little, I believe we can work for positive change. Thank you so much for reading my article, and for your encouraging words!

  4. on 06 Jul 2010 at 1:14 pm admin

    Randy!
    It’s great to hear from you. I have not forgotten the very pleasant chats we had some years back and have often wondered how things are going for you. It’s really nice to receive a little comment from you and I so hope you’re doing well!

    Thanks for your kind praise of this piece. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  5. on 06 Jul 2010 at 1:36 pm Earlpearl

    Beautiful piece, Miriam. tx to Kim for highlighting it and Donna for tweeting about it. But back to you, Miriam: Just a great piece. Thanks

  6. on 06 Jul 2010 at 1:59 pm admin

    Hi EarlPearl,
    Thank you so much for saying so. Very nice to see the tweets, etc. I think this is a subject that hasn’t been covered very thoroughly, and it’s one I’m passionate about.

    Always so good to see you here!
    Miriam

  7. on 31 Jul 2010 at 10:26 pm July ‘10: Best Search/Marketing Posts

    [...] Miriam Ellis/SEO Igloo: Copywriting For Causes – Getting People To Care [...]

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