The Copywriter’s Playbook


(By Spike Santee) To be a good copywriter, you must learn to work with the psychology of the consumer, not against it. You must first understand why people buy things and why they buy them when they buy them. If you don’t consider this important science in your scriptwriting efforts, your commercial will likely fall on deaf ears. 

Consumers are motivated from within, not from external sources. Any decision to buy a product or a service begins as a conscious, or, many times, an unconscious need or desire. That need or desire, that thought, that is what we call the felt need. That something that the consumer is thinking about throughout the day and night. 

You must also learn how consumers come to a decision about acting on the felt need. As you study the research and the brain science involved, you will come to realize that having a sale or offering a discount is not one of the major considerations in the process. 

In his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow proposed that the motivation for action is an unfulfilled need. Maslow’s research suggests that humans seek to satisfy their needs and desires in a certain hierarchy. Maslow contends that people must satisfy their most basic needs first before they can go forward and satisfy the more sophisticated needs. 

Level One – Physiological Needs

A human’s physiological needs take the highest priority. You need be able to breathe, have plenty of water and food, and have healthy bodily functions.

Level Two – Safety

People need to feel secure in their life. They are concerned for the safety and security of their families, their property and their future. 

Level Three – Social Needs

Loneliness can lead to social anxiety and depression. This often leads to serious physical illness and possibly even heart disease.

Level Four – Self-Esteem

We have a need to feel good about ourselves; we need self-respect. We need people we can look up to in life. Respecting role models and leaders is something Maslow identified as part of our need for esteem.

Level Five – Self-Actualization

At the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the need for self-actualization, the instinctual need of humans to make the most of their unique abilities and to strive to be the best they can be. In short, self-actualization is reaching one’s fullest potential.

How is this relevant to advertising? Start observing the advertising you are exposed to through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and you’ll see the words “you” and “your” throughout. 

Pharmaceutical advertising is the sixth-largest advertising category. Examples: “When you have COPD, it can be hard to breathe,” “Chantix can help you quit smoking,” “When you’re depressed, Cymbalta can help.”

Consider the proliferation of advertising for home security systems, insurance, and financial services. Examples: “Can your doorbell do that?” “Are you in good hands?” “If you don’t like their answer, ask again at Schwab.”

Human beings have a natural need to be involved in emotionally based relationships. Whether those relationships come from large or small social groups, or one-on-one relationships, people need to love and be loved by others. Examples: “You don’t have to be lonely at Farmers Only Dot Com.”

The National Car Rental advertising campaign script appeals to the need for esteem with the script: “You are a business pro, executor of efficiency; you can spot an amateur from a mile away, and you rent from National.”

Advertising for higher education, degree completion programs, and technical colleges appeal to the instinctual need for self-actualization. The United States Army created a very compelling message using the appeal to this instinctual need for self-actualization with the Be All That You Can Be, In the Army campaign. 

When you understand the psychology of consumer behavior, you begin to understand that you are not just selling a product, you are selling the idea of the product, the image of the product, and the result of the product. In your commercial, you are trying to tell the consumer how your advertisers can fulfill one or more of the needs in the hierarchy.

As you observe advertising through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’ll see it can be the Copywriter’s Playbook. 

Talk to you soon. 

Spike Santee is the author of The Four Keys to Advertising Success and the president of Contact Spike at (785) 230-5350.


  1. As dated as it might seem at first glance, I believe bringing Maslow’s Hierarchy to the discussion has great value to a copywriter’s considerations.
    What is not so strange, though, is that these points are hardly ever applied to the majority of copy being written for radio – whether by a titled copywriter of a sales executive who is obliged to supply the copy.
    So, let’s acknowledge the long-held traditions of radio copy:
    We attempt to target everybody by applying the singular “YOU”. (More on that later,)
    We load up on content – products, prices etc.
    We supply benefits that have yet to be demonstrated as worthwhile.
    We demand behaviours from the audience. (“Hurry down, Buy now, Be there, Save 30%” and the rest.)
    We presume the ability to read minds by declaring how everybody NEEDS everything we’re flogging.
    The nuances of communicating MORE effectively to a broadcast audience continue to be ignored.
    Yes, purchases are made – based on so many more psychological determinants than what we provide in our spots.
    Too bad those elements are, generally, missing from our grade six-level of ads.


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