Does ‘misery make for better copy’?

I was reading Philip Collins’ opinion piece in last Friday’s Times (subscribers can read it here) when a couple of phrases caught my eye.

Miserable Gladstone

“Misery makes for better copy,” Collins noted, before adding: “As Montherlant once wrote ‘happiness writes white'”.

Montherlant actually wrote “Happiness writes in white ink on a white page,” but the point still holds. When it comes to literature, books with a vein or (better) a big fat pipeline of misery running from page 1 to the bitter end are the ones the customers want.

Just think of that period in the 1990s when almost all bestselling authors wrote about their abusive childhoods in Ireland.

It led almost all people who’d had abusive childhoods in Ireland to become  bestselling novelists. And why blame them? They were simply satisfying readers’ insatiable demand for gloom.

Misery and copywriting

So far, so good. But what about misery and copywriting? Does injecting a bit of gloom into your copy get the cash register ringing?

If most business writing is anything to go by, then the general consensus would seem a categorical ‘no’.

Quit the opposite, in fact. The majority of 21st-century business writing is Utopian in a way that would get Chairman Mao nodding sagely with approval.

Turn to almost any business website. You’ll discover that:

  • The products are peerless
  • The service is without compare
  • Every director has notched up success after success until the firm was able to move into its current, enviable premises (usually an industrial estate on the outskirts of some obscure town).

But it’s boring, isn’t it? We’ve read it all before.

On the other hand, being a bit of a misery guts can work wonders. It makes you stand out.

There was an advertiser back in the 1920s (or thereabouts — I don’t have the book to hand) who sold trousers by pointing out something like ‘They’re not great, but at this price they’ll do’. And with that pessimism, people believed him and bought his trousers by the truckload.

Or say you had a choice of two copywriters. Would you choose the one painted the picture of glittering and ever increasing success, or the one who wrote the following?

June 1970. Brown’s Hotel, Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London.

In those days June was a summer month. It was hot and muggy.

I was shaking – and dripping with sweat.

I had just finished persuading 106 furious creditors that I wasn’t a thief or crook.

And that I should leave the hotel in the same way I entered – on my legs.

One creditor had threatened to break them – and I’m a devout coward.

I’d go for the latter, wouldn’t you?

(So did lots of others. His name is Drayton Bird. The great David Ogilvy said he “knows more about direct marketing than anyone else in the world.”)

And now I’ve just given a massive plug to a better copywriter than me, it’s my turn to feel miserable.

So why don’t you give me a call to cheer me up? Who knows? I could even write some copy that gives both of us a reason to feel happy.

Copywriter: Ben Locker

Category: Blog, Copywriters, copywriting, Copywriting Techniques

More: « ‘All new goods, nothing stale or shop worn’ — a copy tip from 1916 | Long copy ad: How to Create Sales Letters that Sell »


  1. Ah, misery loves company :-) I think misery works up to a point (as does writing about death; I like a good piece about death) but it has to be tempered with a wry conclusion or a bit of humorous self-deprecation.

    Proper I’m-a-miserable-b******rd stuff makes me want to give the keyboard a slap and point out that the author has all four limbs and a working brain with access to running water and doesn’t have to dodge bullets to get to school.

    Ooo, I think I just had a rant. I’m not even sure if it was coherent or had anything to do with the subject of the post (which I enjoyed by the way). I’m off now to happy la-la land :-)

    Comment left by Mel Fenson on Wednesday 1st August, 2012 at 10:47 am

  2. This made me chuckle, maybe you’re onto something here Ben. If misery can sell books, music and films then why not products and services?!

    Not sure if my clients are ready to go along with the experiment just yet though…

    Comment left by Martin Sayers on Thursday 2nd August, 2012 at 1:53 pm

  3. Kind of fits in with the notion that prospects are in some kind of pain that needs to be alleviated. Being gloomy can show empathy. I heard an interview with Kevin Rogers recently where he said avoid being humorous in your copy because all of your prospects are in some form of trauma and don’t want to be joked with!

    Comment left by Damien Elsing on Sunday 5th August, 2012 at 11:41 am

  4. hello Ben
    Great piece.
    I don’t think misery has to be in the copy (although there a shockingly honest estate agent in the 70s, Roy Brooks, whose descriptions of run down properties generated an instantly recognisable verbal identity and became legendary: “..SO CALLED GARDEN WITH POSSIBILITIES best solved by saturation bombing’, and a ‘back bedroom suitable only for a dwarf…”) but I think misery has to be in the writer’s soul somewhere.
    I never trust a happy copywriter. It just doesn’t seem natural.

    Comment left by chris west on Thursday 16th August, 2012 at 8:51 pm

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