Appealing to Hidden Wants, Taboo Needs and Secret Desires

Take a quick glance around your house or in your driveway (or your neighbor’s driveway) and it quickly becomes clear that we do not just buy things for utility.  If we just needed a vehicle to get to our job 10 miles a way, a $1,200 moped would do just as well as a $30,000 Lexus or a $120,000 Porsche.  But some people buy Lexus and some buy Porsche and very few buy mopeds (at least in the United States).  What may not be so clear is that sometimes people buy things and they buy them entirely for reasons other than utility.  In other words they don’t buy for utility AT ALL and utility just becomes a reason or a justification to tell others.

If you are familiar with hypnotic phenomenon this kind of behavior makes sense.

Here’s a passage from Monsters and Magical Sticks: Or, There’s No Such Thing As Hypnosis by Steven Heller, Ph.D. and Terry Steele to illustrate where I’m headed:

Several years ago while doing research on hypnosis, a professor of psychology induced a somnambulistic trance in a subject.  The subject was capable of the most profound hypnotic phenomenon, including post-hypnotic amnesia.  The thrust of this research was to test the theory that upon carrying out post hypnotic suggestion, the subject would re-enter the hypnotic state. While in this somnambulistic state, the subject was told that when a clock chimed 10:00 p.m. at that evening’s faculty party, she would remove one of her shoes; place it on the dining room table and put roses into the shoe.   Further, it was suggested that she would have no memory of the suggestion; it would appear to be her own idea, and she would fee compelled to finish her task. “A very interesting thing happened on the way to the forum.”  While she was carrying out the hypnotic suggestion, the professor asked her what she was doing.  She replied that her husband had given her a beautiful crystal vase that looked just like her shoe and she had never known what to do with it.  She went on to state that it had suddenly dawned on her how to arrange flowers in the vase and she had to try it in her shoe before she forgot. While her explanation appears absurd, she acted as if she believed she was telling the truth.  As the professor tried to explain to her how ridiculous her story was, she became anxious, agitated and very defensive.  The experiment was terminated due to her extreme discomfort.

Now, if we examine the preceding example objectively, we can see a case of post-hypnotic suggestion being carried out without any conscious awareness of the suggestion’s source.  Further, it shows how desperately the subject searched for a “logical” explanation of her actions and show the emotional upheaval produced when the subject’s explanation was challenged. You, the reader, might be saying, “So what, she was just carrying out a hypnotic suggestion.” But, I believe this “hypnotic phenomena” is recreated in all our lives more often than we would believe.

The emphasis is mine.  Anyone familiar with hypnotic phenomenon or even a person that’s just seen a stage hypnosis show knows that under trance people can justify the craziest of things with seemingly (to them) logical explanations.   But here’s the interesting part – people are in a similar trance when they buy something.

Some things have value because they fulfill secret desires, tap into taboo appeals, or deliver repressed wants. (ie – paying $300 for a haircut you can get for $25.) Many people have wants and desires that they prefer to not express to others or are not even conscious of themselves and they will use overt non-controversial purchases to obtain these covert-controversial desires.

“A man has two reasons for what he does –

a good one – and the real one.” – J.P. Morgan

“A man has two reasons for what he does-

the real reason – and the one he tells his wife.”

Mark Twain

In a seminar I gave in 2001 I think I gave an example of someone hiring someone for a job.

While on on the OUTSIDE it seems that certain criteria are IMPORTANT to getting the job, really the most important criteria is the decision maker’s secret or hidden wants, needs and desires.

I think in the example I gave, the interviewer (who was the ultimate decision maker) wanted to make sure that they hired someone who would NOT THREATEN THEIR POSITION.

So, their SECRET/HIDDEN Want, Need and Desire was:


Do you think that will ever be conveyed verbally in the job description?

Do you think they will ever tell their boss that’s why they hired the person they did?

Or do you think they will give the boss a very “corporate” sounding set of reasons that this person fulfilled the job qualifications EVEN THOUGH THEY MIGHT NOT BE THE MOST QUALIFIED FOR THE JOB?

Of course I’m simplifying here, but the point is there is usually ONE OVERRIDING Secret/Hidden Want, Need Or Desire that is the POWER DRIVER when it comes to a person making a decision.

It almost always involves the person’s emotions and OFTEN it involves something that would be socially unacceptable or uncomfortable to reveal.

In copywriting and sales it is one very powerful type of what is called the HOOK or the APPEAL.

Your job is threefold:

  1. Discover and Isolate the Secret/Hidden/Taboo Want/Need/Desire of your prospect(s)
  2. Present it to the prospect(s) in the most appealing way. Speak to the REAL want/need/desire. Remember that if you are dealing with a secret want/need/desire and the prospect’s wife (friend, brother, etc) is there with them you will have to present it in a way that does not expose them.
  3. Provide a compelling justification.  Spoon feed them the socially acceptable reason for doing what they are doing so they can offer this reason to anyone who asks. (See Mark Twain quote).

Often 2 and 3 are presented together with number 2 being subtly inserted through word choice, stories, use of perceptual character and other mechanisms.

In short this is a more detailed version of the old “People buy on emotion and justify with logic”.

However, this phrase is often misinterpreted and taken to mean just general excitement. Also, how do you get to someone’s emotions?

The reality is emotion is generated unconsciously through triggers and associations (although excitement is contagious too).   Emotion can be TAPPED ON DEMAND by just brining up an emotional hot button or trigger even in the most dry way (although I’m not recommending you be dry in your presentation). Tell a born-again Christian, “Jesus never existed.” I don’t think I would be gambling when I say that those three words would get them emotional. Again, I’m oversimplifying and using an extreme example, but I’m sure you get the point.

Sometimes a SINGLE WORD can inspire a chain of associations in a client that resonates with their taboos, unconscious desires and repressed wants.  Find that single word and you could make your fortune.

Sometimes your Perceptual Character demonstrates desired behaviors associated with secret wants and desires and can be used to appeal to a person that then models your character to fulfill them.

Find the secret, hidden or taboo desire and you instantly have THE BIG IDEA that you can build a campaign, sales letter, pitch, etc. around.

Almost always it makes for a great headline and you will find that successful headlines that sell a lot of product often tap into the Secret/Hidden wants, needs and desires of the prospects.

Not what the company or salespeople or even the customer says they want. It’s what customer’s respond to.

That is why testing is so important.

However, after you become skilled at uncovering behavior and cataloging it, your “hit ratio” with creating accurate appeals and hooks aimed at Secret/Hidden Desires BEFORE testing will get better and better.

For example, in 2000 I decided to build a list of people who were interested in persuasion. I looked for a large pool of people I could cull from. I found it in the NLP community that had discovered NLP through a product called Speed Seduction.

For those that don’t know, Speed Seduction was created by Ross Jeffries, the grand daddy of all the modern “pick up” gurus. None of the reigning gurus (including Eben Pagan) would have the businesses they have were it not for Ross Jeffries. I’m pretty sure they would agree.

Jeffries learned copywriting and wrote an excellent sales letter for his product. (You can even hear him on Gary Halbert’s 1996 South Beach Miami copywriting seminar tapes asking for advice on creating a sales letter.)

The original Speed Seduction sales letter was extremely well written and spoke to a certain type of man’s hidden/secret wants and needs. But that’s a whole other topic of discussion. Back to this one…

Speed Seduction was based on NLP patterns/hypnosis that Jeffries learned from NLP/persuasion trainer Kenrick Cleveland. Many of the people that originally purchased Speed Seduction moved on to learning NLP and hypnosis and PERSUASION that used NLP and hypnosis.

Here’s what I learned when looking at this market (again I’m vastly simplifying my research but this is a post not a book):

The majority of guys that were interested in NLP type persuasion that came from the seduction realm had a secret desire for Power/Secrets/Occult Knowledge and control over others. They also were interested in an exclusive VOCABULARY that they could use to communicate their prowess with other “insiders” (Sorry but again I’ll have to expand on this in another post).

My original (2000-2001) sign-up for my Accelerated Persuasion appealed to this audience (my initial test in 2000 was with the NLP crowd and I had over 300 subscribers to the newsletter in less than a week with no paid advertising). Here was the old copy from the squeeze page (actually I used what I call a double squeeze page ):

=========>Start Old AP News copy

Learn how to EXPLODE your communication abilities,

double or triple your income, enjoy powerfully

strong business and personal relationships, gain

an unfair advantage in dating and romance, and

develop “Alien-Like” persuasive powers that you

can use to covertly create more joy, more

excitement and more orgasmic pleasure in your life

and in the lives of those around you.

This is the site your competitors HOPED you would never find!

=========>End Old Ap News Copy

Then later down the page it said this…

=========>Start Old AP News Copy


A select few people in the world have refined

persuasion down to a science. The techniques and

technologies have been carefully guarded and

handed down on an individual basis to a chosen

few. You now have a very rare and unprecedented

opportunity to learn and apply the persuasion

secrets of the masters in your everyday business,

personal and romantic life to catapult you to

tremendous success in every arena of your life.

Everything you do involves persuasion. Do you

want to be average at the ONE skill that permeates

every part of your life? I doubt it. Visit this

site now before we are forced to take it off-line.

========>End Old Ap News Copy


See how the copy appeals to NLP enthusiasts desire for power, secrets and control over others?

I don’t normally say things like “orgasmic” but guess what?… the NLP co-founder Richard Bandler DOES. So why not?

Again, I’m simplifying so I don’t write a twenty page post but I hope I’m conveying the gist of all this.

Here’s another example from someone who ran with this idea:

This is a follow up to one of the most successful ads done in recent years for NLP-based persuasion trainer Kenrick Cleveland (Written by Harlan Kilstein) starts out:

========>Begin Sample NLP Ad

This is the material that blew the roof off every

model of persuasion…

The First Persuasion Material So Powerful,

You Have to Sign a Pledge Not to Use It!

Nothing you have ever seen comes as

close to dangerous and manipulative as… “The Power of the Dark Side”

Dear Persuader,

Six months ago, I exposed an aspect of persuasion

some people would have preferred be kept hidden.

For a brief period, I allowed people to purchase

the Dark Side set but than I took it off the

market. Since then, I have carefully tracked

reports of abuse of Dark Side patterns and I am

growing concerned.

========> End Sample NLP Ad

Do you notice what desires it appeals to?

Notice how he frames the language in such a way that people will easily be able to JUSTIFY their decision with REASONS that are NOT the real reasons they are interested?

Here’s another quick example of what people THOUGHT would be appealing and what was REALLY appealing. This example comes from John Caples one of the Father’s of Direct Response Marketing. In his book, Tested Advertising Methods (a must read), he is explaining why juries are not a good way to pick a headline.

He tells of two headlines aimed at selling insurance:

Headline #1: “What Would Become Of Your Wife If Something Happened To You?”

Headline #2: “Get Rid Of Money Worries For Good!”

The jury picked #1. Of course, who wouldn’t be concerned about what would become of their wife if something happened to them… right?

Well Headline #2 outpulled headline #1 by a large margin.

Why? It appealed to the Secret/Hidden Desire of the reader looking at it.

If you asked a man which one would he pick, he would invariable say #1. But when he actually RESPONDS he will pick #2.

That’s REAL. That’s REALITY. That’s why you must make a life study of behavior to truly be great at sales (or copywriting which is just salesmanship in print). What really appeals to your customer? What do they really respond to? What secret desires can you uncover in your market?

Note: This post appeared originally in slightly different form in 2008 on Michel Fortin’s now defunct Copywriters Board.

Copyright 2008-2010 Christopher Tomasulo. All rights reserved.


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About Christopher Tomasulo

At home Christopher Tomasulo is your average dad with three kids. However, here at Covert Comm he is known as “Doc Sulo” and he mind-warps crowds with a tiny flutter of his left hand. He clothespins ideas to unsuspecting gray matter. He speaks lemon-yellow words that splash into ear canals and squeeze themselves into refreshing influence lemonade. It has also been said he's half-way decent at making complex persuasion and influence techniques simple.
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One Response to Appealing to Hidden Wants, Taboo Needs and Secret Desires

  1. Chet Payne says:

    This post is SO TRUE! It’s funny because Ross Jeffries and the PUA movement is what inspired me to learn NLP and eventually become a full time hypnotist. lol GREAT POST!

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