“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative’. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

Father of advertising David Ogilvy wasn’t interested in creativity for creativity’s sake. For Ogilvy, the purpose of marketing was simple:

“Your role is to sell, don’t let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising.”

Making sales, driving action, persuading people. Convincing someone that you have what they need has never been easy – despite how some of the great copywriters made it look.

Three things that separate advertising masters from the mere mortals is a keen understanding of the human condition, knowledge of the emotions that rule consumption and experience using psychological principles for persuasion. The following is a set of three principles that copywriters can learn, practice and apply to persuade their audience to believe in their message.


The psychological triggers that drive real, concrete action – the ones that make you buy something against all of your rational judgement – are deeply ingrained in our psyche. And they don’t get more fundamental than scarcity.

Scarcity is the basic problem of economics. How do we allocate limited means to fulfill unlimited wants and needs?

It’s also a powerful part of what makes people say yes. People want more of what they don’t have. And if there is not as much of it, it becomes more valuable.

At the very start of the coronavirus outbreak, a rush on toilet paper rapidly increased its value.

As toilet paper became harder and harder to find, people started hunting it down more ferociously. The toilet paper itself wasn’t any better than regular toilet paper, but it’s perceived scarcity made it a ‘must-buy’ for everyone.

This psychological principle can also be employed by copywriters to sell more products and services. Well-worn lines like ‘while stocks last’ are the purest example of this principle in action, but marketers have found all sorts of ways to drive action.

Hotel booking sites use ‘live’ phrases like “20 people watching this deal” and “only two rooms left at this price” to create a palpable sense of demand and ‘fear of missing out’.

This principle can also be employed to products with time-limited availability. Vendors like McDonald’s and Starbucks use this tactic liberally, offering menu items that only stick around for a few weeks and special cups that are only available around Christmas time.


Anyone that has been to high school will understand the pressure to conform.

It can be understood in lots of different ways, but peer pressure is the easiest. Conformity is essentially pressure to change your behaviour or beliefs to fit in with a group.

People often underestimate the power of conformity and overestimate their ability for individual thought and action. But this psychological principle can be very powerful.

In one of the most influential psychological studies of the 20th century, Solomon Asch asked a room full of participants in a ‘vision test’ to look at an image of three parallel lines and choose the longest.

The twist was that 49 of the 50 participants were stooges, instructed to deliberately pick the wrong line. About one-third of the time, the one naive participant would ignore their better judgement and side with the overwhelming majority. And only 25% of participants never conformed to the incorrect majority choice.

Conformity is closely connected to another principle that copywriters use regularly – the principle of social proof.

This rule states that people regularly follow the lead of others who are similar to them. When a door-to-door charity merchant tells you that your neighbours have already been very generous, they are putting pressure on you to conform to the standard of your neighbourhood.

Social networks have pushed these pressures to new heights. Platforms like Facebook, X/Twitter and LinkedIn amplify peoples’ opinions, comments, reviews and more – all of which have the power to shape action.

Pieces of content like testimonials and case studies also serve as ‘proof’ that a product fulfils promises that it makes to consumers.


Reciprocity is one of the building blocks of a successful society. It’s a social lubricant that we use to form bonds and build relationships.

Just as chimpanzees will groom each other – even if the groomee is completely clean – we humans will respond to one positive action with another positive action.

In normal everyday life, some examples of reciprocity include showing mutual affection or returning a compliment to a friend. It’s the old ‘you scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours’ in action, and it can be very powerful – even if you don’t know who you’re interacting with.

In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz set out to evaluate the power of reciprocity by posting handwritten Christmas cards to 600 strangers. Before long, Kunz had received almost 200 replies from people that felt obligated to return the favour.

Reciprocity is also a recognised concept in business. Salespeople in particular will know how important a thoughtful gift, referral or even just a phone call can be to overall success.

For copywriters and marketers more generally, the same principle holds true. If you do something nice for your audience, you increase your chance of getting a sale.

There are lots of ways that you can implement this in practice. It could be producing useful content explaining how to solve a problem that your customers may be having. It could even be using social media to share useful advice or highlight customer achievements.

However you choose to do it, the best way is to make sure you understand your audience. The better you know your customers, the more specific you can make your good deed or gesture and the more sincere you will seem.