Do all sales stories need happy endings?

No. Sometimes the burned hand teaches best. (Or at least a story about it.)


Did you ever watch the movie Amadeus? I remember when I caught snatches of the film when I was a kid – it just about looked like the most boring movie in the world.

But later, as an adult, I decided to watch it – because it was supposedly a “good” movie. When I watched it, I was struck by the tragedy of wasted genius.

Briefly, the protagonist of the movie isn’t Amadeus Mozart but rather his mediocre contemporary, Salieri.

While Mozart’s talent was personally touched by the finger of God, Salieri’s musical ability came with the basic factory settings.

And when Mozart bursts onto the scene, Salieri immediately recognizes this. In the guise of a friend, Salieri schemes and plots the downfall of Mozart, who dies young.

But Salieri’s warped mind eventually sends him to the madhouse.

Not a very happy ending. Maybe not how you want to spend a Friday evening.

But the movie does hammer home the message that jealousy is a poison – a sword without a hilt – and it can destroy you just as much as it can destroy the object of your jealousy.

A sales story is usually about a victory won – but sometimes, it can be more instructive when it’s substituted for or at least preceded by a story about great loss.

This is what is often called “the cautionary tale” … and it can be a great complement and setup to the victory moment.

Why does it work? Well, psychologists and economists have studied the phenomena of “asymmetric loss and gains” or “loss aversion.”

Put simply:

We hate losing more than we love winning.

(You get more upset if you lose a dollar than you get happy if you gain one.)

A “cautionary tale” can tap this psychological bias, and can even “scare us straight.”

Let’s see how this works.

Take the body copy for this 1925 ad for Listerine, which helped launch a new market for the company (prior to this, Listerine was primarily a medical sanitizing product):

Listerine 1925 "Always a bridesmaid ..." Ad
Poor Edna. (1925 Listerine Mouthwash Ad, ht to

“Edna’s case was a really pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married — or about to be. Yet no one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she. And as her birthdays crept towards that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever. She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride.”

(By the way, according to this ad is where the phrase “often a bridesmaid but never a bride” came into existence. Meme-tastic.)

The ad goes on to place Edna’s inability to get hitched to her bad breath: “That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you.”

Did the campaign work? According to Freakonomics, Listerine’s sales shot up from $115,000 to more than eight million in less than seven years – an increase of nearly 7,000%.

Now, this ad is clearly almost a hundred years old. (“Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry.” … somehow I don’t think this would play so well today.)

(And this ad clearly focuses on the “dark side” … something that legendary copywriter Claude Hopkins warns us not to when he wrote “Always present the attractive side, not the offensive side of a subject” in My Life in Advertising. Mr. Hopkins followed his own advice to great success, for example in his Pepsodent toothpaste ads.)

And maybe the ad exaggerates the fear a wee bit too much.

But fear will always be a part of decision making. And stories about those fears allow us to learn the lesson without actually burning our hand. Which seems like a pretty good deal.


Life has dangers and false turns. Sometimes our stories need to go there so we don’t have to.

Do you have a favorite story that “scared you straight?”

Let me know in the comments below. See ya there. And,

Stay Tuned For Next Week …



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