Market With Messages That Tap Into Man's Primal Urges

Take a Page From Literature and Tell Stories Tied to the Deadly Sins -- and Heavenly Virtues, Too

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Greed/Charity. Anger/Patience. Lust/Chastity. Pride/Humility. Envy/Kindness. Gluttony/Temperance. Sloth/Diligence. The infamous litany of vices and their mirror-opposite virtues -- and a great underused marketing tool.

How so? The Seven Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues are not merely religious rhetoric, but fundamental drives and desires that have motivated human behavior from time immemorial. Dramatists, poets and writers from antiquity to modern day have found them useful when delineating characters and generating dramatic situations. Since at bottom, marketing communications is storytelling, we can make good use of them as well.

When brainstorming or developing a concept to carry a marketing message, identifying the Sin(s) or Virtue(s) that characters embody or situations or products evoke will help to gauge if the concept taps into your target audience's primal motivators -- those urges and impulses that influence action before or without us ever becoming conscious of them.

The Sins are commonly thought to represent primal or natural urges in all of us, while the Virtues are unnatural in that we must consciously overcome our natural, evil inclinations to achieve them. Aquinas, for example, explained that Sin arises from uncontrolled appetite, while Virtue is caused by the subordination of the appetite to reason."

We quickly make judgments on this tug-of -war between polarities without much, if any, conscious consideration. When seeing someone consumed with gluttony, even if done humorously, we instantly feel and judge that it is bad or detrimental, without deliberation; seeing the temperance of a dieter feels good and seems to be instantly admirable or even courageous without too much thought.

Of course, these 14 Sins and Virtues aren't the exclusive or exact motivators for every marketer in every market. Think of them as the polar extremes of a behavioral spectrum that contains many gradations of related behaviors in between. As an example, take e-Harmony, the idea of "romance." I would say that romance is the mid-point between Lust and Chastity. Knowing that the central message is on that spectrum, the idea of Lust could be exploited, perhaps by positioning rival companies as sordid enablers of lustful one-night stands, rather than long-lasting relationships.

I doubt that Victoria's Secret needs much help in realizing the potential of exploiting Lust. But I could suggest that the brand is so "Lust in your face all the time" that it risks becoming a numbing one-note. It might consider expanding its brand personality by tapping into a spot other than Lust on the Sin-Virtue spectrum.

The good news for marketers (perhaps bad news for humanity) is that each of us is an amalgam of sins, so messaging that taps more than one has the potential to resonate with consumers even more. Take marketing of Las Vegas as a destination. That advertising appeals to Greed, Lust, Envy, Pride and even a bit of cocktail-sipping, poolside Sloth. And let's add Anger -- over losses.

Your creative take or messaging will more deeply resonate with your target audience if it triggers primal behavior motivators (Sins) or presents the triumphant overcoming of them, the Virtues. Base your next brainstorm session around the Seven Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues. First, decide which Sin or Virtue (or gradation along the spectrum) your company or product's brand promise resides. Second, think of creative that exploits the extremes of the Sin or Virtue. Third, brainstorm ways to expand the brand's personality by adding other messages along different sin/virtue spectrums.
Dean Loftis is an account supervisor for McCormick Co., Kansas City, Mo.
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