Skip to content

The Seven Deadly Sins Method, Part 1

“It’s one thing not to sin—it’s another not to want to!”
-Jacquelyn K. Heasley


Back in law school — an odd place to begin a career in marketing, I suppose — one of the most influential classes I took was in basic Corporations law with Prof. Helen Scott. It was a great class, and I think I began finding business law far more interesting than constitutional law in part because of her.

One of the things she stressed was the motivation behind various laws and cases where people and companies were suing each other, as well as the effect of the law on business behavior. As she put it, businesspeople are motivated by two things: Fear and Greed. Everything in business law can ultimately be traced to one or both of these primal emotions.

Later, as I started to grow up in business, I realized just how right Prof. Scott had been. Almost every business action can be traced to either Fear or Greed, or both. Risk management is almost entirely about balancing fear of loss against the greed for gain.

And yet, as I started to really try and understand the eldritch rituals of marketing, I felt that the simple paradigm of Fear or Greed was not quite sufficient. Fear and Greed still works most of the time for B2B marketing, as organizations lack human emotion for the most part. But when dealing with B2C concepts, Fear and Greed was too broad a brush. Marketing, after all, can be characterized as understanding the target market so well that the product or service sells itself. That requires a bit finer a grasp on human psychology.

After years of experience and experimentation, I realized the answer had been staring me right in the face for my entire conscious life. (I am a double pastor’s kid — both my parents are ministers.) The Seven Deadly Sins are a roadmap for marketers, especially those dealing with consumers.

The Seven Deadly Sins (7DS hereafter) really describe the biggest temptations for human beings. They represent wisdom distilled over centuries of collective experience about what makes people do certain things. And because sin is so easy, I posit that the natural human instinct is related to one or more of the 7DS. It takes education, indoctrination, moral teachings, and constant vigilance not to fall prey to a deadly sin.

As marketers, we have a number of techniques at our disposal to appeal to our target audience. But the more primal appeals usually work better than the cerebral ones. I think the primal instincts are hardwired into us, perhaps in some reptilian part of our brain, and that part is the same part from which the 7DS arise.

Lust. Envy. Sloth. Pride. Gluttony. Greed. Wrath.

These are the emotions we all work so hard to avoid, and yet fail constantly in our lives. They are such powerful motivators of human behavior that those who want to resist have to resort to calling on divine powers.  And even then, because humans end up being unable to resist these motivations all the time, at least one major religion (Christianity) resorted to the concept of salvation through grace. It’s as if God said, “Y’know, you guys just can’t resist can you? Okay, fine — go ahead and sin, as long as you repent, and I will forgive all.”

Those are some powerful motivators.

Basically, people are sinful. They may not want to be, but it’s human nature. Greed is commonplace; altruism is not. Most men looking at a beautiful woman in a bikini will feel lust, not pity. They might tsk-tsk themselves back to thinking right, but the initial impulse is lust. Society cannot function if the sins run rampant, but that fact doesn’t eliminate human nature — it merely helps to contain it.

As a marketer, my job is not to save the world, nor is it to save men’s souls, or make them better people. My job is to understand them so well that products and services basically sell themselves.

Why overlook the seven most powerful motivators of human beings from age immemorial?

The Basic Approach

The 7DS Approach actively and consciously seeks to leverage one or more of the 7DS in the marketing campaign and materials. You can be blatant about it, or you can be subtle. Knowing which sins to leverage, and how to leverage them in selling something as mundane as toilet paper is the key to effective marketing.

Where possible, multiple sins should be leveraged. The perfect campaign has both breadth and depth of 7DS appeal — but there aren’t many businesses that lend themselves to all seven. I can only think of two: nightclubs, and the NFL.

NFL appeals to Wrath (all that hitting), to Lust (helloooo, Dallas Cowgirls), to Pride (We’re Number One!), to Envy (God, I wish I could be Tom Brady), to Gluttony (Beer man! Beer man!), to Sloth (Sunday afternoons on the couch watching TV), and Greed (My Fantasy Football team rocks!). It’s the perfect product, with the perfect marketing — all done rather subtly of course, to maintain the family-friendly image. No wonder it’s the most popular sport in America.

On the other side of the spectrum, one might pick… say, some charitable organization seeking to feed homeless children. The natural inclination of all those good people in such an organization is to appeal to the good in all of us: “Won’t you help feed these poor starving homeless children?” That approach will get you pocket change, and admiration, but very little else. To market a charity like this, I would leverage the sin of Pride, or Wrath. The really successful charities associate themselves with various Hollywood starlets, or civic leaders, or really rich and powerful people. You want to be the “in” charity, the cause du jour. People would naturally want the reflected glory, and will join the organization, donate money by the truckload, and flaunt the association to get that sense of Pride of being one of the Everybody Who’s Anybody. Look at the whole environmentalist racket — without people like Leonardo Dicaprio and Natalie Portman gushing about the green lifestyle and whatnot, it would be a forgotten thing.

Even something like data (which is what I market in my day job) should appeal to one of the 7DS in some way. For example, I may use a Sloth appeal: “We do the work, so you don’t have to.”  That is one of the most important appeals for a service-based company. I might use Envy: “Your competitors have websites that kick your ass, because they have data, and you don’t.” I might try to leverage Pride: “Shouldn’t an industry leader like yourself deserve the best in data?”

Common Mistakes

Some of the most common mistakes in leveraging 7DS arise from the fact that the marketer doesn’t realize he’s playing with the marketing equivalent of nuclear weapons. Because the emotions and impulses captured within the 7DS are so powerful, they must be handled with care and thought.

Using the Wrong Sin

Just throwing up a hot babe in a bikini next to a lawn mower will likely backfire. You’ll get attention, because… well, Lust is a very powerful force. But almost just as quickly, when the consumer realizes that he just brought out a Big Gun of Human Nature… and is being told to focus on a lawn mower… that will rebound against the product. “What the @#() does this half-naked chick have to do with lawn mowers?” he will say to himself. And he will follow that up quickly with, “The lawn mower must be a piece of crap if they’re using hot chicks to try and promote it.” The marketer must choose the right sin to leverage, one that is inherent in the product or service itself, such that the product or service truly can be discerned as satisfying that sin.

To sell a lawn mower, for example, Sloth would be a better sin. “Finish mowing faster so you can go relax on your easy chair” is a better angle.

Going Overboard

Even if the sin fits the product, because the emotions being triggered are so powerful, the light touch is almost always preferable to beating the consumer in the head with it.

For example…

I suppose the point is that the consumer is supposed to be seized with lust at this ad. And think that buying and wearing CK One perfume will lead to hot sex with models. Thing is, the natural inclination is to call bullshit on that notion.

Because the depth of the appeal to Lust is enormous here — immediate reaction of “Oh yeah, sex!” — but the object of that appeal is pretty banal: perfume. Not only that, there is no engagement by the consumer here. It’s a direct appeal: SEX! screamed at the top of the lungs, so to speak. A woman might rightly ask, “Jeez, do I even want to be in that pose with a guy holding a bottle of perfume?” There is no backstory, no mystery, no exploration by the consumer. Sex is being spelled out for him/her. And the manipulation is clear as day. That leads to skepticism, resentment at being manipulated, and all around no-goodskis for the product or the brand.

This, on the other hand, is much better:

At first glance, it’s not immediately obvious that this is an appeal to lust. It just seems like a nice art photograph of two beautiful people on a beach. But it surely is. Their heads are touching, she has a hand on his face, and the intimacy and closeness evokes what is surely a non-platonic relationship. (In fact, Christy here is wearing a ring.) The consumer is invited to go on a thought journey here — who are these people? They look like they’re in love. Where will they go after their day at the beach? All that sand on the clothes… maybe a quick shower… maybe together? What will happen later in the evening? The hidden narrative sweeps the consumer along, and Lust is being triggered by the consumer himself/herself.

So much more effective. Because each viewer creates his or her own fantasy world based on this ad — and that fantasy won’t involve doing household chores together. The ad subtly pushes the levers towards sex, towards Lust.

Explaining Too Much

Closely related to Going Overboard, a marketer will sometimes make the mistake of explaining too much, trying to make the case that his product or service does indeed help you commit the sin in question. Usually, the error is in too much copy.

A great example is in this video entitled “Microsoft Redesigns the iPod Packaging“:

Of course, in the process, the redesigned package sucks all of the subtle appeals to the sin of Envy, Pride, and Gluttony (it applies to things other than food) right out.


I believe in the 7DS method, because it is a variation on the ‘wisdom of crowds‘ idea that the many are smarter than any expert. After all, the seven deadly sins represents the culmination of thousands upon thousands of years of human thinking on what makes people do certain things. That society sees these things as being bad is immaterial to the motivations that lie behind the actions.

The challenge is in applying the insight properly. I do plan on expanding on these basic concepts in the future, but I did want to get these down.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2008 12:53 pm

    Rob – again another excellent post. The 7DS marketing idea is brilliant as the starting point for any marketer in developing a marketing campaign and for a business to develop their USP.


  1. Blog Finder Series: The Notorious R.O.B.
  2. Move Toward Simplicity « The Notorious R.O.B.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: