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Copy tip: the power of habit loops

Have you read The Power of Habit by New York Times staffer Charles Duhigg?

If not, grab a copy. It’s a must-read for copywriters, not least because it tells you how legendary ad-man Claude C. Hopkins used simple triggers to encourage people to use the products he sold.

Pepsodent advert with habit loop

The most famous of Hopkins’ successes was with a toothpaste called Pepsodent. When he was asked to sell this stuff in the early 20th century, he was initially reluctant.

Why? Because most Americans had truly terrible teeth at the time.

So much so that, when the US Government started recruiting troops for the First World War, they realised poor dental hygiene had become a national security risk.

But Claude decided to take on the job (in exchange for a sizeable stock option), and within three weeks of launching his first campaign, Pepsodent’s manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand.

The advert to your left shows you how he did it – by creating a craving.

After discovering there was a natural film on teeth that you could feel with your tongue, Hopkins created a cue. It works – I bet you just ran your tongue across your teeth.

Cue, Routine, Reward

From the cue, Hopkins tried to create the conditions for what Charles Duhigg calls a ‘habit loop’ of cue → routine → reward.

This is how it’s illustrated in Duhigg’s book.

Pepsodent Habit Loop

You run your tongue over your teeth and it reminds you there’s a film on them. You want the reward of a sparkling smile, so you reach for the Pepsodent. Soon afterwards, you run your tongue over your teeth and you discover the film has returned…

You get the idea. Hopkins made a lot of dosh out of those stock options, and America became the Land of the Perfect Smile.

So far, so simple. But something I subsequently read in Duhigg’s book reminded me that, no matter how good the habit loop you create, the product has to offer the right reward.

If a  beautiful smile was already a desirable reward, surely Americans would have been trying some other method to get gleaming gnashers – and if they were, why were their teeth so revolting?

Duhigg tells us. Earlier advertisers had tried their best to encourage readers to keep their teeth clean. Take this quotation from an advert promoting Dr Sheffield’s Crême Dentifrice:

The ingredients of this preparation are especially intended to prevent deposits of tartar from accumulating around the necks of the teeth. Clean that dirty layer!

Dozens of advertisers had tried similar tactics, but their tooth preparations simply refused to fly off the shelves.

So why did people start reaching for the Pepsodent, again and again? It was because it was made differently. Unlike other toothpastes it contained citric acid, mint oil and other chemicals.

When you brushed your teeth, your mouth tingled.

Craving before beauty

Hopkins wasn’t just selling a beautiful smile, but a craving for a tingling sensation – pleasurable in itself, and sensory proof that the product was working.

And since then toothpastes have contained additives that make your mouth zing and create a pleasing foam.

The real Pepsodent Habit Loop

We’re now so hardwired to expect these things, we’d soon discard a toothpaste that didn’t offer them.

I think there’s a lesson in that. If you decide to use the habit loop in your copy, be sure the product offers the right reward.

If it doesn’t, you’ll fail.

If it’s likely to, get hold of the stock options first.

  • pepsodent_advert
  • pepsodent_advert_large
  • Pepsodent Habit Loop
  • The real Pepsodent Habit Loop

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