For 30 years, I’ve been having the same conversation with my partners. The subject is: What do our customers want from us — doom or zoom?

  • Do they want more news about how bad the economy is? Or how clumsy and/or corrupt the government is when it tries to “help”? Or how completely out of tune media celebrities are?
  • Or do they want promises of wealth and health and happiness? Packaged in a pretty little pill?

We have this conversation almost every time we launch a new information product. When brainstorming advertising leads, ideas are offered from both camps, doom and zoom, and the debate ensues.

This is an old debate because it represents two very natural human interests:

  • the fascination we feel when we are discovering something new and shocking
  • the pleasure we feel when we imagine ourselves having something we want

One part of the heart wants to be surprised and intrigued and shocked by bad news. The other part wants to be bathed in dreams of self-satisfaction.

But since we respond to both gloom and zoom when reading, browsing the Internet, or watching videos, this either-or debate is a false one. The best advertising campaigns have always contained both elements.

Still, when creating a package or promotion you have to choose one dominant emotion to appeal to. Should it be doom or zoom?

I’ve always recommended more zoom than doom to my clients. And looking back on the hundreds of packages I’ve mentored, I feel pretty sure that was correct.

I also warned my clients that too much zoom was bad too. For two reasons:

  • You have an obligation to tell the truth about the world as you see it.
  • You don’t want to pander to unrealistic hopes.

So what is the right formula for any given advertisement at any given time?

There is none. You have to figure it out each time anew.

But I’ve recently read something on this subject that knocked me off my chair. It was a very simple statement that Dan Kennedy made in an e-mail to me after we met in Delray Beach last month.

He said, “Buying is essentially an act of optimism.”

And I thought, “Damn! That’s exactly right. That is exactly why you need more zoom than doom in a winning advertising package. In fact, that’s essentially the reason why buying stuff is so much fun. It’s not the possessing part that gives us pleasure. It is the feeling of optimism we have once we have made the decision to buy.”

I know what you are thinking: “I knew that when I was eight years old. And here I thought Michael was supposed to be smart. What’s wrong with him? Is he having a stroke?”

Maybe. But I think I understand what I always understood in a deeper way now. I understand that for everybody — even people who can’t get enough doom and gloom in their lives — when they buy something they are always buying a promise of zoom.

How does this apply to what ETR is doing?

Let’s see.

For about three years, we have been living through a Great Recession. The U.S. economy is as bad as it’s been in 80 years. When things are this tough, it is easy to assume that your customers want you to talk about the trouble we are in. They want to know that you understand their plight.

I’ve been drawn into this idea. When I sit down to brainstorm a new marketing campaign, I say to myself, “I have to start by understanding the customer’s primary thoughts, feelings, and desires.”

And so I’ve tended to favor leads that harped on our troubling times. I know from experience that too much gloom depresses response. But I’ve allowed it because I felt like doing anything else would be wrong somehow. “We have to keep telling them how bad things are,” I’d say to the marketing team. “How right we were in predicting the various collapses, and how much worse things are still going to get.”

Dan’s simple declaration shocked me back into reality. Yes, the recession has created new thoughts and feelings in our customers. But the desires — the fundamental desires for zoom — are still the same.

I discovered years ago that if you want to sell a product that helps people deal with pain or sickness, the worst thing you can do is dwell on the problem. Anyone who might want to buy your product is very aware of the pain and fear. You don’t have to remind him of it. A single word — cancer, for example — is enough to stimulate all the gloomy feelings he has.

“If you want to help people with health problems, you have to bring them new hope,” I’ve been telling my clients in the health publishing business. New hope means genuinely new solutions. Not solutions they have already tried and given up on. The purpose of any health publication is to discover new products, and the job of any advertiser for such a service is to stir up hope by documenting reasons why the product in question is new and different.

Thus the ratio of gloom versus zoom is about 1:9 in health-related products. For investment-oriented products it might be 2:8 or 3:7.

“Any advertising campaign that deals with a problem must present a persuasive solution,” I wrote to a client recently.

In a book John Forde and I are working on right now about writing great leads, we say, “The secret to problem/solution leads is to state the problem as concisely as possible and dwell on the solution.”

That is true in every market.

Whether your customer is buying health services, investment advice, grass-fed beef, or perfume, he doesn’t want to be reminded of what a mess the world is. He wants a solution — and that solution has to come in the form of the product you are selling him.

Thanks to Dan’s very smart insight, I’m reviewing all the copy my clients are using to make sure they are solution-heavy and problem-light. A quick survey of the most successful campaigns this year convinced me that this was the right tack.

As I said, you probably know this already. And you are probably shaking your head and moving me to your D list for “dumb.” But just in case you needed — as I did — a lesson in the obvious, now you have it.

P.S. Every year, I share insights I’ve gained throughout the year (and the rest of my career) during my keynote address at ETR’s Info-Marketing Bootcamp. It’s off-the-cuff advice for all the entrepreneurs like you in the audience. And it’s the perfect way to kick off the event, which features a dozen other experts at getting into the nitty-gritty of search engine optimization, e-mail marketing, social media, copywriting, paid search advertising, and more. See what Bootcamp’s all about here.

Established in 2001, Early to Rise publishes information dedicated to helping you live your best possible life. Here you’ll find effective and proven strategies to increase your health, wealth and productivity.