Why Sex, Sadness, and Social Proof Increase Leads

You’re right. The way your boss’ mind works is pretty complicated. As is every other person’s mind on the planet.

The human mind is a complicated place. We have all these things going on up there, like vital functions, instincts, emotions, memories, and cognitive functions. The fact that you have to figure out how to push your brand into people’s minds amidst all this other stuff is slightly terrifying.

But wait. The brain is certainly complex, but that complexity offers an array of opportunities to appeal to the mind and increase conversions.

Consumer behavior can be influenced by a lot of common psychological trends. Humans are hardwired to think and act certain ways, and you can use this to your advantage in your advertising. By using the right strategies to appeal to certain parts of the brain, you can create persuasive content for your marketing campaign that will generate more leads and maximize your conversions.

To be persuasive online and in e-commerce, you have to:

  1. Know who you’re targeting (and how their brains work).
  2. Communicate persuasively (by appealing to what you know about their brains).

After all, understanding how the human brain works is essential to persuading it.

Here are the three sections of the brain that you should be targeting with each and every one of your messages, and different ways to target them.

How the Brain Works

Our brains are highly complex. Over the years, they have evolved to consist of three different sections: the primal section, the emotional section, and the rational section. Together, these sections regulate our basic functions and instincts, create and store our feelings and memories, and even allow us to think rationally.

By understanding what these three sections do, you can understand our subconscious motivations and design persuasive experiences with the brain in mind (no pun intended).

1. Primal

The most primitive piece of our brain anatomy, the primal section is responsible for those basic vital functions that are common to all animals. These include subconscious breathing, digestion, maintaining a regular heartbeat, etc. The primal section is also in charge of our primal instincts, such as hunger, the fight or flight response, and mating.

2. Emotional

The emotional system of our brains corresponds with the limbic system, which is responsible for creating automatic feelings, memory, and value judgments. It also regulates attention span, spontaneity, and creativity levels.

The emotional system has a lot of different pieces that work together to create and store your feelings and memories.

3. Rational

Finally, we have the rational section, which corresponds with the cerebral cortex and is entirely unique to humans. It’s responsible for higher cognitive functions such as planning, organizing, critical thinking, and problem solving. It also plays a role in social learning, innovation, language, and abstract thought.

Appealing to Each Section

Now that we’ve identified the three sections of the brain and discussed the important parts of each section, lets look at how you can appeal to all three.

Appealing to Primal

This one is the easiest of the three. Your primal brain is responsible for cues involving food, sleep, and sex – things we all love. It seems like a no brainer (again, no pun intended), but incorporating images associated with these behaviors will appeal greatly to our primal instincts.


If you sell food, this is easy as pie (I’m just full of puns today).

All you have to do is post nice, close-up, larger-than-life pictures of delicious dishes all over your website to cause those hunger pains and kick in the medulla oblongata.

Screenshot taken 4.25.14 of panerabread.com.

Take a look at Panera Bread’s homepage, which does this in a way that’s both effective at making you hungry and visually pleasing.

Makes you hungry, right?

But don’t think this trick only works for restaurants. Even if you sell something totally unrelated to food (running shoes, computers, furniture, etc.) you can still use food imagery to your advantage.

When the actress in your commercial runs back home in her nice shoes, she’ll probably want a healthy (but delicious looking) snack. As a salesperson is showing your computer to a potential buyer, what better screen saver to see than an array of bright fruits? And that great, sturdy kitchen set that’s featured on your homepage would look excellent with a jar of homemade cookies on the counter.

Although the food in all of these scenarios really doesn’t have to do with the product, just seeing the food will still make a person hungry.

This ad for Ikea does this perfectly.

Image Credit: adland.tv. Used under license.

Not only does it feature apples and oranges on the countertops, which are visual stimulants for hunger, but it also references grilled cheese sandwiches. Now you’re picturing a good, buttery, gooey grilled cheese, maybe dipped in some creamy tomato soup. Delicious.

Does Ikea’s table set have anything to do with grilled cheese? Nope. But now you want one, don’t you?

Why did Ikea mention grilled cheese like that? Because Ikea wants to appeal to your primal brain. Ikea has presented you with both visual and language cues of food, establishing a sense of hunger and longing in your brain. And since your brain is so good at pairing memories with emotions, you will now remember Ikea and associate it with having that craving.

And people craving your brand is definitely a good thing.


Then there’s a totally different kind of craving – those cues for sex we mentioned earlier.

We’ve all heard that sex sells, and it’s definitely true. Studies show that sexual content gives a purchase advantage to just about any product. The only exceptions are high-risk, informational products like banking services, appliances, and construction equipment.

Great. Sex sells. But why?

The same principle applies here as for food. Our brains are hardwired to notice sex right away, so we can identify a possible mate and bear offspring. By seeing someone really sexy (whether they’re running in your brand of shoes or sitting at your kitchen table), we naturally feel aroused and excited – emotions which the brain will subconsciously link to your product.

This ad for Nike shows just how you can use sexual appeal to associate craving with your brand.

Image credit: nikeblog.com. Used under license.

Not only is she sexy, but the text is sexy as well – “My butt is big and round like the letter C?” Come on. Blatant sex appeal.

Even if you’re not attracted to her that way, you can’t deny she’s in great shape. Chances are, you’ll see her and want to look a little more fit yourself.

Either way, by wanting her or wanting to look like her (and her butt), we also subconsciously want those Nike shoes.


Another principle that really applies to the primal section is contrast. Humans naturally look first at items that visually contrast with the things around them – whether they’re bigger, a different shape, a different color, etc. This is because we are programmed to assume that, if something is different from the rest, it must be more significant than the rest.

Our tendency to seek contrast probably evolved from our early ancestors, who learned that brighter flowers were more likely to be poisonous, bigger animals were harder to hunt, etc.

You can appeal to this primal behavior by assigning contrast to the most important elements of your website or ad.

The homepage for Resume Baking uses color contrast to stress its most important element – its CTA. Users land on this page with the cool blue and white color scheme, and the first place their eye goes to is the strikingly different red button in the middle. The CTA says “Create Resume: It’s quick and easy” to showcase what Resume Baking has to offer.

Screenshot taken 4.25.14 of resumebaking.com

This example demonstrates a great way to use contrast and ensure that the first thing the viewer sees is the company’s benefits.


Incorporating scarcity into your marketing is a great way to take advantage of our primal instincts.

Our ancestors had it kind of rough way back when. They didn’t have grocery stores or electric heat. If a supply was scarce (food, fire, etc.) then it was obviously really valuable to find some. And if you found it, you would do anything you could to get it before you missed your chance.

You can apply this same get-it-before-it’s-gone instinct to maximize conversions. By limiting availability to your product with sayings like “limited time only,” “only 15 left in stock,” “25 minutes left to order,” etc. you can increase its perceived value and put a purchase decision into a timeframe. Plus, people are likely to pay more when scarcity is introduced.

There are a lot of examples of how companies have successfully created urgency for their customers. Personally, I think Ebay does it best. If you go to the “Daily Deals” section of the site, you’ll find a long list of spectacular sales that are loaded with urgency.

Let’s take a look at the Turtle Beach Call of Duty: Black Ops II KILO Limited Edition Stereo Gaming Headset post in the Daily Deals section.

Screenshot taken 4.25.14 of ebay.com

We see at the top left that this sale is for “today only”, so you know if you don’t act today, you’ll miss out on this deal forever. To the right, we see a countdown clock ticking back the number of seconds left to make this purchase. You only have 3 and a half hours left! If you want this product, you have to act NOW. Don’t think. Just do it.

If you’re still not convinced, you see below that if you do act now, you’ll get “50% off list price” and enjoy free shipping. This is a steal.

All of these are tactics Ebay uses to instill a sense of urgency in the viewer. Is the sale really only for today? Maybe, but it’s likely they’ll post it again in the future if they don’t sell out.  Can you still get this product after 3 and a half hours? Probably– but it benefits them for you to think otherwise.

Do these scarcity tactics work?

Well, Ebay is valued at 40 billion dollars, so you tell me.

Scarcity makes people buy products quicker and for more money than they would normally pay. Don’t let Ebay reap these benefits alone.

Appealing to the Emotional Side

But humans aren’t 100% primal. We have more interests than just surviving and reproducing. People want emotionally rich relationships and experiences to bring meaning to their lives. This emotional need introduces feel-good, relationship building tactics like reciprocation and personalization that can really benefit your bottom line.


Reciprocation is when you give your customer a free small gift (an e-book, a trial, a consultation, etc.) in exchange for something, such as completing a survey or submitting their contact information.

Giving out free gifts sets you apart from your competition, and it’s a great way to help you connect with future customers who are interested in you, but not yet willing to make the commitment.

Also, when customers provide their opinions, it’s beneficial for both parties. You get honest feedback on where you can improve, and your customers know their feelings are valued. This might make them feel more open to committing to your brand.

Keep in mind that the value of giving the same gift decreases over time, so this works best if you have a number of different giveaways to share over time.

Netflix does this really well with its one month free trial promotion.

Screenshot taken 4.25.14 of netflix.com

In exchange for your e-mail address or Facebook information, you can enjoy one month free of endless TV shows and movies.

How awesome of Netflix to offer a whole month for free like that. I really appreciate it. In fact, I feel so good that I’m way more likely to sign up after my free month now.

Why? Because I associate those good feelings and that appreciation not just with the promotion, but with Netflix itself.

And that’s how it works.


People love their own names. Appeal to this love of names by personalizing your messages everywhere you can. Research shows that personalized messages create a higher response rate.

This makes a lot of sense. If all of my e-mails start off with “Hey, Shane!” then my eye goes right to my name first. If the subject line says something like “We want you to wear our product, Shane!” it’s even better. I feel recognized, appreciated even. And now that you have my attention and I’m feeling so great about our relationship, I’m much more likely to interact with your message.

Names are an easy starting point, but you can take this a lot further. Let’s say a number of your customers have retweeted something you posted on Twitter. You could send all those people a message, saying “If you enjoyed that post we posted, you’ll also enjoy this similar post on the same topic.” Or if a customer updates on their Facebook profile that they just got married, or had a baby, then you could send them a personal message congratulating them.

By personalizing your communication with your customers, the email seems less “business to person” and more “person to person”.   This tactic helps build trust, because people see you’ve taken the time to understand them and feel more convinced that your brand is worth their time in exchange.

But that’s not all personalization can do for you. Combine a free gift with personalization as a power move, and you’ll see the results.

In the book “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive,” an experiment was conducted to test how much people at a restaurant would tip the waiter based on changes in the method of offering a mint.

The waiter offering mints on the customers’ way out was used as a baseline for this research. Among the findings were:

  • Leaving mints with the check: 3.3% increase in tip
  • Personally offering mints before leaving the check (personalization): 14.1% increase in tip
  • Personally offering mints before leaving the check (personalization), walking away, returning and offering another: 23% increase in tip

By personally offering the mint at numerous times, the waiter received the highest increase in tip. These results suggest that, by offering personalized gifts at numerous touch points (your website, your online ads, your social media, etc.), you can expect to receive the highest conversion rate.

Appealing to Rational

So we’re not all primal…but we’re not all emotional, either.

Humans are unique in their ability to think logically when problem solving. In this day and age, people see thousands of ads a day. We’ve developed a need to rationally consider products before we purchase them instead of acting on emotional impulse – otherwise, we’d all go broke.

You don’t have to look at this as a challenge, and bombard your messages with statistics and facts that people can put in a pros and cons list. Instead,  use this as an opportunity, by helping people rationally analyze your product and come up with a positive, logical conclusion – through tactics like simplicity, social proof, and group labels.


KISS everything. That’s right. Keep it short and simple. Make it as easy as possible for people to consume your information, analyze it and come to a conclusion.

There’s a myth that people love to have choices. The reality is that choice is a paradox. On one hand, we enjoy choices because we don’t want to feel forced into anything. On the other hand, too many choices create unnecessary friction. If visitors have to contemplate what to pick, they might go into logic overload and give up.

If you think about it (with your rational mind), it makes a lot of sense. Saying yes or no to one product is an easier decision than choosing between products A, B, C, and D. Instead of offering a ton of options, show people one clear action you want them to take, and make it as easy as clicking a button.

Note: This isn’t a one size fits all, however. Sometimes, you’ll want to show a lot of information (product specs, benefits, etc.) to provide rational evidence that your product is worth the investment.

Just make sure you consider your formatting. People love lists and numbers because they create an easy, appealing (and logical) visual structure.

Social Proof

Social proof is a common tool for encouraging people to commit. Testimonials and customer ratings make it easy for people to learn from others (since the rational section is involved with social learning) and logically justify making the purchase. It also enables people to visualize themselves enjoying your product through other people’s feedback.

You can take advantage of this by taking any positive feedback you receive and displaying it as much as possible.

Drug and alcohol rehab center Clarity Way does this on its homepage, by featuring a video testimonial, a call-out quote from the testimonial, and a link to read more testimonials.

Screenshot taken 4.25.14 of clarityway.com

A drug and alcohol center is often a sensitive topic for the people in need of rehabilitation services. Instead of featuring pictures or facts about addiction, Clarity Way has chosen to put the benefits up front and center in the form of social proof. It makes the site look and feel more positive and uplifting. It also helps people justify going to rehab rationally (“If David H. enjoyed the program, then I might enjoy the program too”).

Social media proof (likes, shares, tweets, etc.) can be useful tools for encouraging consumers to buy as well. The higher your likes, the more confident a person will feel in choosing your product. After all, how could 5,000 people all be wrong about you?

Finally, we have product demonstrations, which are a great way to show the benefits of your product by letting potential customers watch someone else use it.


Humans are complicated beings. We have basic needs to survive and reproduce. We also experience an array of feelings, and we crave emotional connections. Finally, we view the world critically and are programmed to approach problems logically and with reason.

To be persuasive online and in e-commerce, you have to target all three sections of the brain. The strategies listed above are just some of the tactics you could take to persuade a consumer on a primal, emotional and rational level.

Whatever your strategies, keep in mind that your message, content and website should be:

  • Arousing (primal)
  • Emotionally effective (emotional)
  • Intellectually compelling (rational)

Using psychology this way will help you persuade your customers on an intimate, personal level and drive more leads.


Featured Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay