Stand-Out Copywriting: Are You Using Operant Conditioning?

One of the most important examples of stand-out copywriting wasn’t marketing. It wasn’t an ad. And it long predated copywriting as a profession.

Abraham Lincoln at GettysburgAbraham Lincoln wasn’t the only person to speak at Gettysburg on that fateful day. Edward Everett also spoke...and he spoke for 2 hours. Long orations were very popular back then. When someone gave a speech, it was expected to be long. And Edward Everett delivered.

Then Lincoln stood up. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lasted 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

Clearly saying more isn’t always communicating more. Though Lincoln didn’t start rapping or doing something wildly unfamiliar, he certainly broke standard protocol. And that’s what we all still remember (ironically, perhaps better than even what happened at Gettysburg).

It’s like copywriting.

You can find copywriting anywhere. Everywhere. Everyone does copywriting. But when you need to bring in support for your brand, who are you going to choose as the person or team to pick up the pencil and do the work? You can find anyone to pull the Edward Everett—someone who will give you something good...something that’s more or less what you’d expect.

Or you can find someone who knows how to break convention and deliver something memorable.

Let’s talk about how to make your copywriting stand out with a psychological principle called operant conditioning.

Operant Conditioning and Stand-Out Copywriting

MRI Brain ScanSo that we can be clear about how operant conditioning ties to your copywriting, we’re going to give you a breathtakingly short review of what operant conditioning is.

This is going to get a bit technical, but stick with us—it’s worth knowing so that you can better assess who picks up the pencil for your brand:

  1. People interact with the world around them. And all around are stimuli. Our responses to those stimuli have consequences—potentially long-term impacts on our psyche.
    1. The consequences serve to increase or decrease the likelihood of making that response again.
    2. The response can be associated with cues in the environment, which set the occasion for the response.
      1. Ex: We put coins in a machine to obtain food, but we don’t put coins in a machine when there is an “Out of Order” sign placed on the machine.
  2. Reinforcement is any procedure that increases the response to a stimulus.
    1. Positive reinforcement: stimuli that strengthen the responses that precede them.
    2. Negative reinforcement: we make a response that terminates an aversive stimulus.
  3. Punishment is any procedure that decreases the response.
  4. Types of reinforcers:
    1. Primary: Food, water, etc.
    2. Secondary: Money, power, etc.

In other words, people react to the world around them. We interpret that world in a way to keep us safe—reinforcing some behaviors, enduring punishment for others, and doing what it takes to reach the object of our motivation.

That’s profoundly important to keep in mind when you’re tasked with making copywriting stand out.

So let’s talk about positive and negative reinforcement, and give a word on punishment.

How to Put All That in Your Stand-Out Copywriting

Let’s dive into three key aspects of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement tells you that you’re going to get something good, like a treat.

“Register today and receive a free gift!”

stand-out-copywriting-positive-reinforcementPositive reinforcement in stand-out copywriting speaks to a person’s desire to get ahead, even in small ways. It’s the feeling that he or she receives something extra without having to pay extra for it—the “cherry on top”, the free appetizer, the 20% more shampoo concept. Positive reinforcement is all around you in marketing, because it is a highly effective hook to get you off the fence and tip the scales in Brand X’s favor over Brands Y and Z.

But positive reinforcement isn’t always effective. It can have a negative effect on your brand by devaluing your offering. How many times have you looked at a shampoo bottle with “20% more” on the bottle and thought, “20% free? Or you were just shortchanging me 20% until now?”

Use positive reinforcement carefully—it may be a cherry on the top, but not everyone likes cherries (if you’ll allow us to extend the metaphor just a little).

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, so let’s clarify before we go on.

All reinforcement—whether positive or negative—encourages a response to a stimulus, whereas punishment decreases the response.

Negative reinforcement, then, encourages you to act so that you don’t lose what you have. It’s a form of pain relief:

“Seats are limited—Don’t miss your chance!”

stand-out-marketing-negative-reinforcementIn this case, negative reinforcement is encouraging you to respond to the stimulus known as FOMO, or fear of missing out.

Negative reinforcement is highly effective because people tend to be more motivated to keep what they have, than to gain what they do not have. It’s the notion that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.

In the example provided, the audience already has an opportunity (because everyone has a wealth of opportunities); but if they don’t react to this stimulus, they’re going to lose their opportunity.

But negative reinforcement can also backfire when all you do is remind people that they are constantly in a state of losing what they have worked so hard for. Negative reinforcement can quickly turn...well, negative. In fact, it can start to feel more like a punishment.


You’ve seen it before: the letter in the mail with very little design and messages that say “URGENT”, “REPLY ASAP”, or “WARNING.” They look like a bill or a fine, and people call in to provide their credit card information without truly understanding what is (and isn’t) really at stake. Punishment-centered marketing quickly strays into scam territory.

Dog in a head coneBut not all punishment-type copy is quite so blatant. Tell us if this sounds familiar:

It’s the last email in a series. The subject line says something like, “We’ve been trying to reach you…”, “Are you there?”, or “Should I try to reach someone else?” Somehow the subject lines sound like your disapproving aunt at that family reunion picnic 28 years ago.

It’s not negative reinforcement, and it’s definitely not positive reinforcement. What it actually sounds like is a punishment—as if the recipient has somehow disappointed the sender, and they deserve a scolding.

Make sure that your marketing ad copywriting isn’t low-key punishing your audience for not doing something they have never made a commitment to do.

Do You Have Someone Capable of Stand-Out Copywriting?

Lincoln knew how to step outside the norms of the day to say something worth remembering. When you get someone to write the voice of your brand, you need someone who is writing with intent, having studied the psychology of motivation and decision-making. That’s how you can tell the difference between “same ol’ same ol’” copywriting, and true stand-out copywriting.

Reach out to Rogue to talk about how you can connect with your audience, from a broad messaging strategy all the way down to why you use exactly the words that you use. We’d love to chat.