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The evil guy who could have had a job on Madison Avenue

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I was 18 and about to graduate high school.

My chosen thesis subject?

Why and how the Nazis were able to gain their power and influence the masses.

Now that I think about it, it should have been a sign for me not to go into software engineering…

Anyway, it was a fascinating subject to me, even at that age for two reasons:

  • I was an introverted nerd, influence and power felt so foreign, and I was curious
  • I couldn’t understand how masses of people can align with the same beliefs at the same time

Fun fact: for my thesis presentation I saved my slides on a floppy disk (remember those?), and the teachers didn’t have a computer handy to read it. So I had to go with what I could remember. Which wasn’t much…

Anyway, inevitably I ended up getting into copywriting and I can now say I have a much better understanding of how this all works.

I think there are powerful lessons (and warnings) in looking at how Germany used propaganda to sway their people into the dark side.

Before WW2, the country wasn’t actually getting it right.

In “The attention merchants” by Tim Wu (recommended read), he observes:

“In general, German war propaganda made the elementary error—common among clever people and experts, and familiar to the great ancient orators—of jumping into the complex merits of an issue before having engaged the listener. With their reductive messages and vivid imagery, the British and Americans handily avoided that blunder.”

So what did the Germans do? They copied the West!

Enter Hitler, who if you didn’t know, started making money drawing advertising posters.

What the dictator did was to infuse their propaganda’s strategy with an intuitive understanding of how the reptilian brain works.

In particular, he understood things like:

  • Appealing to the less educated masses was more effective
  • Messaging has to adapt to the audience’s level of understanding
  • Propaganda should not try to teach, but to steer towards a goal
  • The audience has a “field of vision”, unless you can enter it with your messaging you can’t be heard
  • Repetition of simple concepts beats versatility and complex topics when influencing
  • There’s always some kind of inertia in people’s minds that makes it hard for them to switch beliefs right away. They need time and exposure.

And finally:

“The psyche of the great masses is not receptive to anything that is half-hearted and weak.”

In other words, polarization and strong emotional messages often win over bland, logical ones.

You can get this masterclass in persuasion by reading “Mein Kampf” 😅

But seriously, it’s striking to me how powerful persuasion can be and how much you need to feel responsible for how you’re going about it.

There’s a copy lesson here and a moral one.

Anytime you approach your audience, always make sure you’re not jumping ahead too much. Curate your messaging and voice to include terminology and concepts that your audience either already understands and embraces, or can internalize easily.

On the moral side, always ask: “Am I selling something people want and value?” That should be our starting point. And that’s when persuasion comes (and feels) natural. Not when you’re seeing it as propaganda or force-feeding your audience.


Speaking of books, I just posted a new video going into my step-by-step process for learning from what I read. You can check it out here.

Quote and reflection of the day:

“Life will forever be open to us. We will never know that it cannot be expressed more beautifully. The beauty in the world is growing.”

  • Tor Norretranders, The user illusion

Knowing you don’t know frees you up to imagine new and better things. Creativity and vision come when you accept that your world is as dull or as interesting you make it.

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brain dump?

Every week I write about what I’m learning at my copywriting/UX desk ,with fun, insightful and quirky stories.

Let’s nerd about decision making, persuasion, habits, and conversion optimization.