A spin doctor is a person, mostly politicians and public relations firms, who attempt to do damage control by downplaying something truly negative. They try to put a positive “spin” on something unfavorable.
Are copywriters spin doctors? Maybe.
But there's a difference between putting a positive spin on a negative idea, versus putting a product, a feature, or an idea in a positive light that can be perceived as negative.
Left to her own devices, a reader can come to many conclusions. Both right and wrong. Both true and false. Both real and nonexistent. Copy, in this case, has the power to steer the reader in the right direction — and therefore avoid going in the wrong one.
One such tool that enables copywriters to do this is hyperbole.
Hype is not bad and it's often given a bad rap. The problem is not hype in and of itself. It's when it is perceived as hype. When hype is conspicuous, that's when the copy did a poor job, making the offer or its author appear smarmy, misleading, even scammy.
However, hyperbole is powerful because it helps to drive home some important points, and aids in the comprehension of critical or complex ideas.
So, how can you turn puffery into praise? “Hyperbole” into “hallelujah?”
The mind thinks in relative terms and not in direct terms.
So to understand a key point as efficiently as possible, the mind can do so easily when it is given something it can compare it to — something the mind already knows, remembers, visualizes, understands, and believes.
It's like comparing the size of one acre — something the mind can't visualize or refer to, unless you're a land surveyor by trade — to the size of a football field.
Exaggeration is the same thing. It's subjective, not objective. Therefore, using hyperbole can add not only emotion and vibrancy, but also understanding and appreciation. At a deeper, intimate level. A visceral level.
But used properly, exaggeration can invoke vivid mental pictures. And it should.
People will see it for what it is. Cognitively, they will know it's improbable. But they will not discount its message and the meaning behind it, because they understand what the author is trying to do — which is to make a point and not to deceive.
For example, there's no such thing as “boatloads of money,” “a flood of website traffic,” or “murdering your competition.” These are obviously exaggerations and untrue.
(Take the song “Love Shack” by the B-52s: “I bought me a Chrysler, it's as big as a whale and it's about to set sail!” That's a metaphor. However, metaphors, similes, and analogies often employ hyperbole in order to convey a greater message.)
But used judiciously, exaggerations can be formidable tools to drive points home more effectively, powerfully, efficiently, and compellingly. They allow readers to grasp the meaning of the message, and not just the message itself.
Overused, however, or used in the wrong way, hype not only can be perceived as too sensational and unbelievable, but also can become counterproductive and destroy any credibility you're trying to communicate with your copy. Even if the rest is factual.
This is when people say “it's all hype.”
Granted, some people use hype to make a point. Others use hype to aggressively push their wares. When hype is used in the former, seldom will people even realize its use. But in the case of the latter, people will see it because it's so glaringly obvious.
What's the difference?
It's in the perception.
It's like a professional car sales representative who works in the best interest of the customer and uses some exaggeration to make sure the client grasps some key points, versus an overbearing, stereotypical used-car salesman who overuses hype and, pardon the pun, like a bulldozer tries to plow their way into a sale.
One topic that came about during a discussion with one of my members is the concept of people trying to increase the value of some information product by making incredible, puffed-up comparisons that are obviously too far-fetched.
(And “obviously” is the point, here.)
For example, they manufacture a higher fake price to enhance the size of a discount, when the discounted price is the real price all along — which, by the way, is illegal according to advertising laws in most locales.
Another is the use of exaggerated figures in order to strengthen the value of the product, but when overdone the exaggeration is perceived as an attempt to inflate and mislead, and therefore sell under false pretenses.
You've heard of them before, like, “Get $29,857.97 worth of bonuses if you buy today!” Or, “The estimated retail value is $5,000, but you can get it today for only $9.95!”
It is often said that people are cynical and skeptical, and have built-in bunk-detectors. That's not entirely true. Rather, I believe people have innate credibility detectors.
When an exaggerated claim is made, without any credibility or anything to back it up, that's when the alarm bells tend to go off. And this is true even when there's very little exaggeration, if any. The copy doesn't just lack truth. It also lacks the “ring of truth.”
Again, it's all about perception.
Nevertheless, this type of approach is not only despicable but also extremely counterproductive. People see the exaggeration not as trying to make a point but as a boldface lie, which undermines any attempt at building credibility.
And lack of credibility is what makes some sales copy perceived as “too hypey,” “too salesy,” “too much like a stereotypical salesletter,” etc. (And above all, too scammy.)
Use it this way only once in the copy, and people will immediately discount anything and everything else that is being said, whether it's 100% true or not. They will doubt every word you write. And perhaps everything else you sell, too.
But this where the power of words comes in.
Here's an example.
That member mentioned earlier posited a scenario, which he opposed. He went on to explain that some people, in order to sell an information product, inflate the price of their expertise in order to emphasize the value of the product.
For example, “I charge $1,000 an hour for consulting but I put my expertise in this $37 ebook.” Naturally, just said in this way makes the statement appear incredible. (And I mean that literally, as in not credible.) As a result, the entire pitch thus becomes suspect, even if the exaggeration is used only once in the copy.
Sure, there are people who say they charge that much for the purposes of inflating their value, and others who, even though they never really charged that much, would, depending on the circumstance — such as a way to prevent any clients from hiring them.
I know some people who do charge that much. Personally, I charge 0 an hour or more, which depends on the case and type of consulting work required. And I currently have eight clients who pay that much when they hire me for ad hoc consulting.
But there's a clear distinction between people who never charged that much but would, and people who would never charge that much. Ever.
Some people don't want clients. They prefer to sell products and, if someone ever asked to hire them, they quote exorbitant fees as a high entry barrier for the sole purpose of driving the prospect away. They want to steer clear of working with clients.
For instance, that member said:
Just because they charge [x] amount doesn't mean people are taking them up on their consulting.
Perhaps that's because they don't want anyone to take them up on it in the first place. In fact, the marketing strategy may be such that, the perceived value is placed not only in that person's expertise but also in that person's time.
It's like another way of saying, “The only way you can hire me is to buy my product.”
But (and this is a big “but”)…
It's boils down to intent, credibility, and, more importantly, perception. I can't speak for that person's intent or credibility. But perception is key — if not done right, such a standalone exaggeration can be perceived as bull manure. And it often is.
Some people do use this strategy to merely inflate the value of their expertise “disclosed” in some ebook, to in turn prop up the value of the ebook. That's deceit.
However, others do use this strategy for real, logical reasons. What they say or mean to say may be entirely true. But they fail to justify it and communicate it in their copy. This goes back to the power of adding “reasons why.”
In short, they fail to back up their claims, exaggerated or not.
If someone carefully explained in their copy that the reason they charge so much for their time (and hence why the ebook is so valuable) is because they don't want clients, and would prefer to sell some ebook instead, that would be more plausible.
I'd go a step further in saying that the person can say:
“I used to charge $100 an hour for consulting, but that's when I was taking on new clients. But because so many people asked me questions about [my expertise] and there are only so many hours in the day, I wrote this ebook to ‘duplicate myself' and save me time so I can cut down on my workload. Today, I no longer take on clients. In fact, if you were to hire me, I'd charge $1,000 an hour. Why? Because I simply don't want to consult anymore. The only way you can get my expertise nowadays is to buy my book.”
To me, that's a heck of a lot more realistic and believable than some puffed-up claim about a seemingly non-existent consulting fee. In other words, the “reason why” in the above example is used to inflate value not specifically but implicitly.
My mentor used to say these two important truths:
- “Perceived truth is more powerful than truth itself.”
- And, “Implication is more powerful than specification.”
So perception is really the key — or the culprit, depending on the case. More important, exaggeration is not meant to specifically denote some concrete fact, but to imply its more subjective meaning in an effort to instill a greater appreciation of it.
It really all boils down to how you word your copy.
That said, however, the earlier member added this interesting yet powerful tidbit:
Although I agree somewhat, the bottom line is nobody believes it. I don't even think it does anything for perception as I don't know ANYBODY that would believe that crap.
I understand your position as far as not wanting clients, etc. but it comes down to what they actually charge. I just think it makes somebody look REAL dumb when they say stuff like this. But then again, that's just my perception.
Yes, it is just that person's perception, which is the point. This person's comment actually said a lot more, particularly about the very point I'm trying to make. Let me explain…
He said, “Nobody believes it.” Which is a universal, and therefore a misleading and untrue, statement. I mean, nobody? As in, not one single person? How does he know for sure? Realistically, he doesn't. And can't. It's impossible.
(Plus, as you can see, by saying “nobody” this person equally made an exaggerated claim — the very thing he spoke out against — to make his point. But I digress.)
However, to give that person credit, he did follow up with this telling statement: “I don't know anybody that would believe that crap.” And that's likely true. In fact, it says it all right there, and I'll come back to this in a second because it's important.
First, he said, “It comes down to what they actually charge.” True, but one wouldn't come to that conclusion if there was ample proof or a reasonable explanation in the copy.
If they don't want clients (and that's just one reason among a possibility of many others, which nevertheless should have been explained in the copy), they might indeed really charge that much. But the problem is, it wasn't said.
So, it leaves the reader guessing. And that's not good.
They just put this seemingly fake number out there with no realistic justification, no logical explanation, no believable backup — thus leaving it to be desired.
If you don't give any reasons why to justify and backup your claims, everything you say will indeed look suspect and considered “hype.” People will invariably come to conclusions — and without proof, they will likely be the wrong ones.
Now, coming back to his statement of “nobody believes it,” I believe that's not necessarily true in all cases. Granted, it is an outright lie in some cases, where some unscrupulous marketers flagrantly attempt to deceive and fraudulently coerce their readers.
But I also believe that, in most cases, poor copy is the reason readers come to such negative conclusions, even when the marketer and their motives are honest.
When the member above said “Nobody believes that crap,” he's right — in other words, nobody would believe that crap. (Meaning, when it is said in “that” way.)
In this case, it's perceived as “crap” because there are no reasons to believe otherwise.
If I was the copywriter in the above example, I would have conveyed the value of my time and not my expertise. Time is scarce. Expertise, however, is perceived as abundant — unless it's truly unique proven through historical data or degree of specialization.
So rather than specifying it outright, one can use copy to imply it. In other words, by focusing on lack of availability, especially on the expert's inability to accommodate such a large demand, the expertise becomes implicitly valuable because it is made scarce.
The question is, is there a balance? In other words, does the perception of credibility meet or exceed the perception of hype, exaggeration, or implausibility?
Let me give you another example.
Here's a true story I told when I used to teach marketing in college.
Two guys opened a premium coffee shop in, if I recall the story correctly, Toronto, Canada. They sold gourmet coffee beans. But they were failing and floundering — so much so, they were forced to go out of business because they couldn't pay rent.
Just a few weeks prior to the closing date, one of the partners wanted to promote a “going out of business” sale, and slash the coffee prices in half in order to get rid of their inventory before they closed their doors for good.
To that person's dismay, the other suggested they should double their prices instead. “What do we have to lose?” he said. “We're going out of business anyway.”
An argument ensued, but the first one gave in. With one condition: that they would give it try but only for a day, just to see. So with a bit of trepidation, they took the risk and doubled the prices of their “premium” coffee.
To their total surprise, they sold out that day.
Today, that little coffee shop in Toronto has transformed into a large national franchise.
Bottom line, people couldn't believe that “premium” coffee could be so cheap. Was the price inflated? Yes. Was it perceived as being inflated? Nope. And that's my point.
Here's another story.
Oprah Winfrey did a show once on misleading advertising. To prove her point, she ran “taste tests” in shopping malls across the U.S. While her point was about deception, to me it also taught more about the power of perception.
She had her staff place two bottles of apple juice on small tables, and asked passers-by to taste each of them to decide which one tasted better.
One was a plain, white plastic bottle with a picture of an apple on its label. The other was an intricately shaped glass bottle, with a red label donning the picture of an elderly lady cooking apple juice in her kitchen the old-fashioned way.
If I'm not mistaken, over 70% said the juice from the glass bottle tasted better (only a few said the first one tasted better, while the rest said there was no real difference).
When asked, they said, “The second one is sweeter tasting,” “it's crisper and fresher,” “the picture of the lady tells me they take greater care in preparing the juice,” and so on.
Meanwhile, hidden cameras revealed they were surreptitiously filling up both bottles with the exact same juice from the same large container hidden underneath the tables.
Was it misleading advertising? That's arguable.
Sure, what Oprah did was misleading for the purposes of her experiment. However, under normal circumstances it wouldn't misleading in a negative way. The packaging enhanced people's perceptions of the juice and placed it in its best possible light.
The point remains.
Hype is only hype when it is perceived as hype.
Similarly, if you're going to inflate an idea, a feature, or an offer, and if you're going to use hyperbole to make your point and convey a deeper meaning behind your message, make sure to deflate it with a proper balance of logic, credibility, and reasons why.
My wife once told me a story of one of her clients whose website gave out free bottles of nutritional supplements. The headline said: “Free 30-Day Supply!” But people weren't responding well. They probably thought to themselves, “What's the catch?”
But then they added this simple statement: “Why free? Because we're so confident you're going to love our product that, once you try it, you will want to come back to us for all your nutritional needs.” Their response shot through the roof.
Ultimately, nobody believes blatant, explicit attempts to puff up, inflate, and exaggerate. But it's the lack of credibility and logical reasons why that often makes it so.
You've heard of it before…
“People buy on emotion first but justify their decision with logic.”
Consequently, don't be afraid to use hyperbole to drive home some critical points, add persuasiveness to your copy, and convey a greater, more intimate meaning to your message. But when you do, always add a logical, justifiable, and plausible reason why.
When you do, the perception, I submit, would be entirely different.
Michel Fortin is a certified digital marketing expert and renowned copywriter who specializes in a unique combination of SEO, CRO, and UX to improve traffic, leads, and revenue for his clients. For the better part of 30 years, he's produced countless wins, generating in excess of $300 million in sales and results that have broken many industry records. He has worked with thousands of businesses ranging from individual entrepreneurs to enterprise-level multinational companies. He's the author of two top-selling books and often speaks at industry events. To connect with him, visit his LinkedIn profile where he is most active.