What a Prince song can teach you about getting your copy read

Feb 13, 2022

I may be showing my age, but I remember at least a few decades ago when a certain song by the late legendary musician Prince came out.

And in today’s issue, I’m going to show you how this song can significantly boost the chances that your emails, sales pages, VSLs, magalogs, and other promos get opened and read.

What is that Prince song I’m talking about? Controversy.

In his nearly four decades of making music, Prince was no stranger to controversy. In fact, “Controversy” was also the name of his fourth album (here’s the cover):


Prince’s hit song with the same title addressed the speculation surrounding him about his sexuality, gender, religion, and racial background…all hot button topics at the time.

In one line from the song, Prince sings, “I can’t understand human curiosity.”

But clearly he did.

And “His Royal Badness” used it to make a boatload of money and sell lots of music.

A little “controversy” can do the same for your promos!

The advertising world, especially in recent times, is full of stories about huge “blunders” that supposedly damaged companies…but ended up selling more of their products.

The recent dust-up about the Peloton bike commercial is a case in point. (If you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, here’s a link to the video of the ad. For extra fun, you might want to look at some of the highly entertaining ad parodies out there as well.)

While it had its supporters, the Peloton ad sparked a torrent of criticism for being sexist, creepy, and even abusive. The backlash was so massive, the company’s stock plummeted in recent days…resulting in a loss of $1.6 billion in market value to the company and its shareholders.

Chances are it’s going to bounce back from this as consumers forget about the whole dust-up and move onto the next controversy (time to buy the stock?)

What’s more, all the recent media attention could end up helping the company boost its revenues, as many people who had never heard of Peloton or were unfamiliar with their products now know about them and their brand.

The company probably would have had to spend at least double or triple the amount it lost in market value to get that level of increased brand awareness.

The thing is, it’s highly likely the Peloton ad wasn’t intended to be controversial. And I’m not suggesting that you purposely make your promos controversial, either.

But “controversy” is a great word to slip into your email subject lines, headlines, and bullets…along with some of its cousins like “forbidden” or “banned”.

Just like Prince’s many racy and controversial songs, it can pay off big-time in getting your copy read. It’s a tried-and-true tactic I’ve seen (and used) for decades in direct mail, and online as well.

Here are a few quick examples from my email inbox just in recent weeks…

What’s in Kim’s Mailbox?

Let’s start with the subject line of an email from I got from INH (Institute for Natural Healing). It read: So controversial it could get BANNED! [Your copy inside]

Hmmm…double whammy–“controversial” AND “BANNED!”

I’m so curious I just have to open it. Here’s what I see when I do…


Notice how the photo of the book cover is intentionally blurred? Not only does this create curiosity about what it says on the cover,  it continues the masquerade. It conveys “this is so controversial, we were forced to blur the front cover”.

Aside from the brief transitional intro from the INH spokesperson, the beginning of the second letter picks right up where the subject line copy left off.

And while it hints at a controversy that has to do with the president, instead of taking a political angle–which could alienate half the audience–it focuses on a “common ground” fear that the target prospect has regardless of political beliefs: the fear of losing the retirement they’ve worked hard for.

Starting with that fear as the main angle in the email subject line may have been too depressing or otherwise off-putting to get the prospect to open it. But stirring up some curiosity about something that’s been “banned” gives you a way in.

Let’s take a look at another example that landed recently in my email inbox. This came from a financial publisher with the following subject line: Controversial Message on Stock Trading Just Released

So after reading that in the subject line, I’m curious just what this “controversial message” is. However, I open to find this (which continues on with several “mini” articles about different trends and multiple points of entry)…