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Copywriting: Using Language to Affect Behavior

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Back when I was a wee college student (before the turn of the century), I had an interesting discussion with a linguistics professor about what, if any, effect language has on the behavior of those who speak it. It was a question that arose from a casual observation of the varied paces of different languages around the world. Specifically, we discussed whether this pace affected the moods and/or behavior of the speakers of a given language.

She pointed me to something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the “principle of linguistic relativity.” In short, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was an idea that came together in the early 20th century which proposed that people’s thoughts and behaviors are indeed influenced by their language.

Granted, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis never gained much traction in linguistic circles, and surely its progenitor, Edward Sapir, was outcast to die a penniless death. But as a copywriter, I embrace the spirit of his concept, for influencing people’s thoughts and behavior through language is the very essence of the job.

Just like the way music can affect our mood or elicit emotional responses, so can language. The English language has loads of rhythmic and “melodic” possibilities that we intrinsically feel and understand when we read or listen to someone speak. Add to this a lexicon filled with nuanced meanings and connotations and you get even more “linguistic toys” to play with.

A copywriter’s task is to wield all of these elements to most effectively deliver a given message and get the desired response. Whether it’s buying a product, joining a club, donating money or what have you, copywriters are charged with finding the right combination of words and rhythms to grab your attention and inspire you to act. One might say that copywriting is, in effect, the “songwriting” of advertising.

So the next time you feel moved by an ad, take a moment to consider the language at work. Was there something specific that triggered your response? Was it the word choice? The rhythm? Did the ad “sing” to you? Also, do you think Edward Sapir was onto something? Does a culture’s collective mindset and behavior stem from its language?

What do you think?

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