“Agitating the Problem” in Copywriting

Let’s say you’re standing on a street corner.

On the other side, you notice a tiger slowly making its way toward the street corner.

Question: How would you warn your friend that they should stop walking towards you because there’s a tiger approaching around the corner?

It’s kind of the same when we’re taking about “agitating the problem” when writing copy.

And if you want your copy to convince and convert into buying *your* solution, you have to remind them of the pain they’re feeling.

Problem agitation is an easy way to tap into the conversation your customer already has inside his head and effortlessly relate to them and gain their trust — if you do it right. If you do it wrong, you’re just a moron screaming “Tiger!!” when there’s really no tiger there.

So how do we poke the wound?

And how do you then frame your product or service as the solution to the problem, the answer to the question, the cure for the poison, the pill for the pain, etc.?

Well, think about it…

  • Why is this problem important?
  • Why is this problem a problem?
  • Why should your readers care about your new “solution” if they don’t know they have a problem in the first place?

Human beings are biologically structured to chase reward and avoid pain.

So how do you go about triggering the feeling of frustration and pain in a way that makes your readers pursue your solution to resolve that pain?

Let me share some of my techniques for doing exactly that.


People show stronger support for political candidates not when they are supporting candidate A, but when they are opposing candidate B.

That’s why instead of trying to convince your readers that your product will bring them this and that, focus on emphasizing their utter hatred and disdain for the underlying problem.

If you are writing copy to promote a fitness program, don’t start by saying things like “get ripped abs” or “increase your muscle size.”

Instead, focus on the negative emotions that a reader will experience from a lack of physical fitness…

× You feel embarrassed to take your shirt off at the beach?

× You hate it when people talk about their fitness achievements?

× Your friends think you’re a wimp who can’t lift a bag of groceries?

× You get winded every time you go up the stairs in your building?

Readers will instantly begin empathizing with those emotions. They will see themselves experiencing them, and they will become stressed and frustrated. It’s not that being fit is all that awesome, it’s that being a lazy potato is stressful, unproductive, and downright repulsive.

When they develop this negativity and opposition, only then should you present your solution.

If you start your copy with something like “get ripped abs” you’re skipping the entire process of developing empathy. That’s why you should always start your copy by triggering a disdain for the underlying problem.

(UNLESS your readers are very much aware of the problem and the pain it causes them, and they’re in the buying stage where they’re ready to find the best solution out of a pool of solutions. Then sure, start with the benefits. In all other cases, address the problem first.)


Rhetorical questions make the reader generate an implicit response or conclusion in response to the question. And when you’re not trying to persuade someone, but you’re letting them make a conclusion on their own with the right series of questions, you win.

Blankenship & Craig, Journal of Language and Social Psychology:

“Rhetorical questions tend to invite a response from the message recipient. This response may increase the link between one’s attitude and certainty related to that attitude via a self-validation process. That is, rhetorical questions may increase the certainty of one’s attitudes through an implicit response.”

Through these implicit responses, your rhetorical questions allow the reader to think for themselves and come to the conclusion that whatever you’re saying is true. Instead of you trying to convince them, they’re convincing themselves.

Instead of…

Our science-backed fitness program will help you get ripped abs fast.

Go with…

Don’t you think that getting ripped abs will be FASTER with a science-backed fitness program?


Sure, self-referencing language is very persuasive. However, you can achieve a much better result by demonstrating an impact on other people, IF your frame is negative.

Consider the two following messages:

FRAME 1: Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.

FRAME 2: Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.

Which one do you think influenced more hospital staff to wash their hands? According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, frame 2 was more persuasive exactly because it used pre-selective impact through a negative frame.

So, when possible, make sure that your copy demonstrates how other people will be negatively affected if your reader does not complete your call-to-action.


Here’s what Gregory M. Walton and Mahzarin R. Banaji found in their 2004 study:

They presented participants with various statements, including:

— Susan eats chocolate

— Jennifer drinks a lot of coffee

The question here is: what does Jennifer do? The statements themselves emphasize the verb.

Then, the researchers presented participants with another set of statements:

— Susan is a chocolate lover

— Jennifer is a coffee drinker

The question here is: Who is Jennifer? These statements emphasize nouns.

Both sets of statements essentially convey the same meaning. However, the second generated a much stronger impact because the statements were central to the identity of the do-er.

Instead of rewarding your readers for doing something, reward them for being who they are. Instead of reminding them of a problem, remind them of the identity attached to that problem.

Instead of…

— If you have trouble focusing on your studies, this is for you.

Go with…

— If you’re a procrastinator, this is for you.

The second statement will generate a stronger response as central to your reader’s identity.

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