Many Internet marketing “gurus” will tell you that if you are trying to sell something online all your copy, your advertisements, your headlines and so on should lead the reader to realise you can help them avoid pain. Indeed, much of the marketing advice given by many experts is on the “pain avoidance principle”.

It is all based on ideas from Freud – a man who spent much of his life hypnotising women in his flat in Vienna and then getting them to tell him in detail their sexual fantasies. He’d be on the Sex Offenders Register today, no doubt, but somehow the theories he produced from this “work” still live on.

Freud’s notion was that when we are born we inevitably seek pleasure. As we grow up we get a sense of reality in that we can’t always seek instant gratification because it isn’t appropriate or possible – and that can be painful. This idea lives on in marketing circles where it’s suggested that the main thing we want in life now, as grown ups, is to avoid pain.

However, more recent psychological research focuses on the fact that we are products of the world we grow up in, rather than having some inbuilt “principles”, a la Freud. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in some marketing research done several years ago which wanted to look at this pleasure versus pain idea.

The study was completed at Stanford University and compared the impact of different kinds of advertising in the USA and in Asia. What the researchers discovered was that the American audience responded to the adverts focused on pleasure. It was only the Chinese audience that liked the “avoid pain” adverts.

The study tells us that in a culture where the predominant focus is on the individual – as in the USA or Europe – advertising based on pleasure is much more likely to have an impact. In cultures where the focus is on the group – as in many Asian societies – the avoidance of pain in advertising works best.

So what does this mean for your online business? It suggests you need different approaches for different markets – well there’s a surprise. Targeted advertising for particular cultures and specific landing pages for different countries.

If, however, the bulk of your market is in North America, Europe and cultures based on the individual then you are much more likely to sell if you focus on pleasure, rather than avoiding pain. Forget all those people who tell you that you need to concentrate on the pain of your customer – they are causing you too much pain in trying to work it all out…!

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