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Boo! Scare readers into action with the PAS copywriting formula

by | Copywriting, Copywriting formulas, Fun stuff

What business writers can learn from people who write horror stories

Michael Myers is back! You’ve got to admire his resilience. He’s making his 11th return in the Halloween film series.

But seriously, how do horror story writers keep audiences coming back?

For starters, they evoke intense feelings in their readers. To do this, they:

Get inside the reader’s head

The horror story writer helps readers to see scary situations from the eyes of a character. They aim to make the reader feel part of the spooky action.

Use people’s fears to frighten them

What readers fear most in horror stories is relatable to their own experiences. Horror writers file away moments that cause anxiety and use them to make readers break out into a cold sweat.

Build an atmosphere and pace

As Psychologist Dr. Dolf Zillmann puts it:

“Negative feelings created by horror movies actually intensify the positive feelings when the hero triumphs in the end.”

What’s the lesson in this?

Here’s the interesting thing. Have you ever noticed how some marketing communications use fear to create magnetic content?

I’m talking about copy, often accompanied by images that tap into your emotions so that you start to worry about what would happen if you didn’t take action.

To evoke fear, copywriters use a formula called PAS.

Be afraid. Be very afraid of PAS

Problem: You present a real-life pain or a fear
Agitate: You add side effects to establish the fear or anxiety is real
Solution: You empathise with the reader and let them know you can provide a means of escape

It’s similar to a before and after story, but with a little foreboding added to the mix.

Here’s PAS in action


Writing marketing copy is easy right?

You know your product offering inside and out. You’ve got an English qualification. Every day you write emails and reports.

But here’s the thing. You’ve got little time. And that blank page is staring at you.


You feel anxious. The reality is writing marketing copy is entirely different from writing an essay, an email or a report.

Your palms sweat. It’s hard to condense your product into short, easy to read and persuasive words.

You worry your efforts aren’t good enough. Also, that you don’t have anything new or valuable to share.

Worse still, the clock is ticking


Don’t worry; I have a strategy you can use to help you write marketing copy that encourages your readers to take an interest in and get in touch.

Here’s a checklist that’ll give you a great starting point.

But you’re probably wondering if using fear to sell products and services is a tad unethical.

Here’s another way to think about it.

People don’t like pushy, hard sell techniques. But the purpose of copywriting is to drive action. So instead, copywriters use empathy to make their case.

Copywriting Legend Dan Kennedy explained in the Ultimate Sales letter:

“When you understand that people are more likely to act to avoid pain than to get gain, you’ll understand how incredibly powerful this first formula is.”

With the PAS formula, you aim to answer the questions:

  • “Why should I care about this product?”
  • ‘How will it make my life different?’

Let’s take a closer look at how PAS works:

All copywriting projects start with research. It helps you to map out the direction of your copy.

Start by building a persona of your customer. You need to know:

  • Who your customers are and what do they want
  • What frustrates them? What are their pains?
  • What are your customers actually using your products/services for?
  • What problems can your products/services alleviate?

Then, once you are in tune with your buyer persona (or character), you can give it real life struggles to which it can identify.

To hook your readers and to send shivers down their spines, communicate:

  • Perceived vulnerability: How likely is this to hurt me?
  • Perceived severity: How much will it hurt?
  • Antidote: What action can I take to avoid the threat or solve the problem?

As a result of your efforts, you’ll rouse your readers with emotion to take action.

Where can you use the PAS formula?

The beauty of the problem, agitate solution formula is you can use it right across your marketing communications, from blogs to social media posts and email marketing.

A word of warning

Don’t be a doom monger. Nobody likes people who suck all the excitement out of life and bring them down.

Moreover, you don’t want to induce a fight or flight response (heart tremors, anxiety and so on).

Use PAS wisely and lightly.

So what about you?

Are you ready to address the things that go bump in the night?

And give your audience goosebumps with a copywriting formula that provides chills and thrills?

Should make for compelling reading.

And finally

If you would like help writing words that show how ghastly life would be like without your products/services, then drop me a line to get information about pricing. I provide spooks for treats!

Claire Hawes, copywriter and owner of The Content BoutiqueAbout Claire Hawes

Claire Hawes is a marketing communications copywriter. She enjoys writing engaging copy that helps businesses to get noticed and attract enquiries. Claire’s experience mainly lies in the business to business sector. Her clients include both businesses and digital marketing agencies.

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