Inception-PosterWhat’s the ulti­mate act of influence?

Plant­ing an idea in another’s mind so that not just the idea but the emo­tion behind the idea take route natively, as if the idea was the prod­uct of the recipient’s own thought, as if they had con­ceived it themselves.

At least, that’s what Christo­pher Nolan might say if you asked him, as his lat­est film, Incep­tion, is built around exactly that premise.  The idea that a tech­nol­ogy which allows one to enter into another’s dreams (or to pull another into one’s own dreams) might also allow a per­son to either steal infor­ma­tion from the sub­con­scious of another, or plant an idea into the sub­con­scious of another.

If you haven’t yet seen the film, you’re prob­a­bly best off book­mark­ing this post for later, as sev­eral plot spoil­ers await. But if you have seen the film, and if you’re a copy­writer or busi­ness own­ers, the very idea of incep­tion prob­a­bly sent your mind spin­ning over the con­nec­tions between incep­tion and copywriting/persuasion.

At least that’s what hap­pened to me, and here’s what I saw:

1) All influ­ence is self-influence

Within the film, most every­one except our hero and his team believe that “incep­tion” can’t be done. Peo­ple can tell when a thought isn’t theirs, and the mind reacts to an out­side thought with psy­chic defenses and resis­tance.  As Arthur from the film says:

… it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you… [Even when the idea is implanted sub­con­sciously]… The subject’s mind can always trace the gen­e­sis of the idea.  True inspi­ra­tion is impos­si­ble to fake.”


Unless you let the per­son draw the con­clu­sion them­selves, so that they  “gen­er­ate” and own the idea.

In the movie, the idea that Cobb and his team are hired to implant is: “Break up your fathers empire,” but rather than try­ing to plant that idea whole, they plant emo­tional impulses that (they hope) will lead the mark, Fis­cher, to draw that con­clu­sion for him­self. These impulses, planted at suc­ces­sively deeper lev­els of the uncon­scious (dream within a dream within a dream), are as follows:

  • Level 1 — “I will not fol­low in my Father’s footsteps”
  • Level 2 (aka, the dream within a dream) — “I will cre­ate some­thing for myself”
  • Level 3 (aka, the dream within a dream within a dream) - “My father doesn’t want me to be him”

They are lead­ing Fis­cher to the con­clu­sion that he should break up his Father’s empire, and they are mov­ing towards more sub­tle, pos­i­tive, and emo­tional seeds for that idea at each level.

More impor­tantly, Cobb’s team takes this one step far­ther by hav­ing most of these impulses come from Fischer’s (aka, the mark’s) own sub-conscious.  On level 1 they have one of their team mem­bers, Eames, play the role of Fischer’s men­tor and sur­ro­gate father, Uncle Peter.  Eames imper­son­ates Uncle Peter  in order to sug­gest the seed of the idea to Fis­cher in an emo­tion­ally res­o­nant form.  Cobb’s team then drops Fis­cher down another level by tak­ing him to a dream within a dream, and at that deeper level, Fischer’s own sub­con­scious cre­ates the Uncle Peter char­ac­ter (Eames no longer has to imper­son­ate him).  At this deeper dream within a dream, Fischer’s own sub­con­scious plays the role of Uncle Peter. This way Fis­cher feeds the idea to him­self so that the idea seems self-generated.

This cor­re­sponds with the old writ­ing adage: “show, don’t tell.” In other words, give your read­ers the infor­ma­tion or con­text they need to draw the con­clu­sion you want, and allow them to fill in the gaps. Tell me you have great cus­tomer ser­vice and I say, “yeah, sure”; tell me you guar­an­tee to answer my calls within 7 rings and to resolve all my tech­ni­cal issues within an hour of call­ing, and I think “Wow, that’s great cus­tomer service!”

The whole thing works even bet­ter if the con­text you sup­ply appeals to the reader’s already estab­lished truths, biases and prej­u­dices.  Remem­ber how Cobb’s team deliv­ered the seed idea to Fis­cher from his trusted and loved Uncle Peter? Do the same thing for your read­ers by cloth­ing your sug­gested con­clu­sions in the con­text of old famil­iar truths.

This is a tech­nique as old as Aris­to­tle, who called Enthymemes the soul of per­sua­sion. Why? Because they take the form of log­i­cal rea­son­ing while assum­ing a cen­tral ele­ment of the argu­ment.  This assump­tion forces the audi­ence to fill in the miss­ing gap, mak­ing them active par­tic­i­pants in the chain of rea­son­ing.  An enthymeme makes the con­clu­sion feel self-generated for those who share the assumed piece of the argument.

Here’s an exam­ple or two:

Does this place look like I’m … mar­ried? The toi­let seat’s up, man!“
(The Dude in The Big Lebowski, 1998)

Notice how YOU had to sup­ply the miss­ing premise of “Mar­ried men are trained to put the toi­let seat back down.” By par­tic­i­pat­ing in he chain of rea­son­ing, the con­clu­sion seems almost self-drawn, doesn’t it?

Here’s another one from Dannon:

One of the Soviet Georgia’s senior cit­i­zens thought Dan­non was an excel­lent yogurt. She ought to know. She’s been eat­ing yogurt for 137 years.“
(1970s tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ment for Dan­non Yogurt)*

And this Geico ad does an excel­lent job of pok­ing fun at its own assumed premise:

YouTube Preview Image

2) Nested sto­ry­telling = the dream within a dream

The dream state pro­vides access to the sub­con­scious. But a dream within a dream takes you that much deeper into the sub­con­scious, which is why Cobb is noto­ri­ous for using the tech­nique, and why his team elects to take it to a max­i­mum for their attempt at incep­tion.  By going to a dream within a dream, Cobb’s team can sug­gest things to Fis­cher that his con­scious mind would likely reject.

For copy­writ­ers, the dream within a dream is a nested story (aka, a story within a story). In writ­ing copy you inevitably cre­ate – at a min­i­mum – one frame of ref­er­ence: the one between your autho­r­ial voice and the reader. So intro­duc­ing a story into your con­ver­sa­tion with the audi­ence instantly “nests” that story within the larger “nar­ra­tive” of your copy, one frame of ref­er­ence within the larger frame in which you’re “speak­ing” to the prospect.

The beauty of this tech­nique is that the reader will uncon­sciously iden­tify with pro­tag­o­nist of the story, so that emo­tions cre­ated within the nested story don’t stay inside the story — they fol­low the read­ers across to the frame story.  This is impor­tant because a copy­writer can get away with sug­gest­ing things within the con­text of “just a story” that he could not cred­i­bly write as explicit claims or statements.

Take the begin­ning of this, per­haps the most famous direct mail piece of all time, in which Mar­tin Con­roy starts telling his story, open­ing with the phrase “on a beau­ti­ful late spring after­noon.” And with that one phrase Con­roy estab­lishes both his autho­r­ial voice, speak­ing to you, while also cre­at­ing the inner frame of his nested story – that of the busi­ness parable.

On a beau­ti­ful late spring after­noon, twenty-five years ago, two young men grad­u­ated from the same col­lege. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been bet­ter than aver­age stu­dents, both were per­son­able and both – as young col­lege grad­u­ates are – were filled with ambi­tious dreams for the future.

Recently, these men returned to their col­lege for their 25th reunion.
They were very much alike. Both were hap­pily mar­ried. Both had three chil­dren. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Mid­west­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany, and were still there.

But there was a dif­fer­ence. One of the men was man­ager of a small depart­ment of that com­pany. The other was its president.

What Made The Difference

Have you ever won­dered, as I have, what makes this kind of dif­fer­ence in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intel­li­gence or tal­ent or ded­i­ca­tion. It isn’t that one per­son wants suc­cess and the other doesn’t.

The dif­fer­ence lies in what each per­son knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

And that is why I am writ­ing to you and to peo­ple like you about The Wall Street Jour­nal. For that is the whole pur­pose of the Jour­nal: To give its read­ers knowl­edge – knowl­edge that they can use in business…”

Notice how the nested story emo­tion­ally primes the reader within the safe con­fines of “just a story”, while simul­ta­ne­ously posi­tion­ing that emo­tional charge to jump across to the rest of the copy. This causes many read­ers to inter­pret Conroy’s offer that The Wall Street Jour­nal will pro­vide  “knowl­edge that they can use in busi­ness” as ‘the WSJ will help me get the pro­mo­tions I deserve’ — a state­ment the writer could never have got­ten away with had he attempted to baldly and explic­itly assert it into the copy directly.

If this con­nec­tion between dreams and sto­ries seems stretched, real­ize that more than one movie critic has, while review­ing Incep­tion, noted the con­nec­tion between enter­ing into a shared dream and the act of watch­ing a movie; for what is a movie if not a shared dream?  And what is a story if not a movie in the mind of the reader?

Speak­ing of dreams within dreams and sto­ries within sto­ries, here’s a great ad the sort of com­bines the two to great emo­tional effect.  Watch how the emo­tion of the nested story leaps across to the frame, and by exten­sion, to you, the viewer:

YouTube Preview Image

3) It’s the emo­tion behind the idea that counts

Let me just quote from the movie script on this one:


Now the sub­con­scious moti­vates through emo­tion, not rea­son, so we have to trans­late the idea into an emo­tional concept.


HOw do you trans­late a busi­ness strat­egy into an emotion?


That’s what we have to fig­ure out. Robert and his father have a tense rela­tion­ship.  Worse, even, than the gos­sip columns have suggested…


Do you play on that? Sug­gest break­ing up his father’s com­pany as a ‘screw you’ to the old man?


No. Pos­i­tive emo­tion trumps neg­a­tive emo­tion every time. We yearn for peo­ple to be rec­on­ciled, for cathar­sis. We need pos­i­tive emo­tional logic

And there you have it. Emo­tion trumps (or dri­ves) logic, and pos­i­tive emo­tion trumps neg­a­tive emo­tion. This goes way beyond fea­tures and ben­e­fits to the deep emo­tional dri­vers behind intent. How often does your copy address these deeper emo­tional motivations?

If I were to ask you right now what the deep, pos­i­tive, emo­tional moti­va­tors are for your key cus­tomers, could you even tell me? Does your copy come any­where near address­ing them?

More impor­tantly, amidst all the “Problem-Agitation-Solution” copy for­mu­las out there, are you mak­ing sure that your pos­i­tive men­tal images of future ben­e­fit out­weigh the neg­a­tive images you cre­ate of the prob­lems you claim to solve?

Do you give your pos­i­tive emo­tion at least as much force as the neg­a­tive?

4) Self iden­tity and rela­tion­ships are the key to emo­tion that counts

When it came to reach­ing Fis­cher emo­tion­ally — when it came to fram­ing the mes­sage in a way that would reach his inner­most heart — the only way to do that was through rela­tion­ship and self iden­tity. How does my Dad see me, and how do I see myself?

I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t go into huge detail about his now, but let me just say that absent per­sonas and sce­nar­ios, there’s really no sys­tem­atic way to address self-identity in copy­writ­ing. The best copy­writ­ers do it intu­itively, but every pro knows it helps to have a sys­tem to fall back on.

What’s your system?

2010-09-22_2335So what about all you other Incep­tion fans? What were you take-aways from the movie?  Any aha moments that fol­lowed you out of the the­atre? Let me know in the comments.

Best com­ment gets a free copy of the movie’s shoot­ing script from Ama­zon.

* Hat tip to Richard Nordquist for the enthymeme examples


  1. Nick Stewart on 09.23.2010

    Thanks for the great post and insight using Incep­tion.
    .-= Nick Stewart´s last blog ..How to Main­tain Traf­fic While Tak­ing Time Off =-.

  2. Jeff on 09.23.2010

    You are wel­come, Nick. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Mark@ Make Them Click on 09.24.2010

    I can’t resist, this post is so “deep”

    I shall be re-reading this one sev­eral times.

  4. Jeff on 09.24.2010

    Thanks, Mark. Glad you liked it.

  5. Steven Shaw on 09.24.2010

    Hey Jeff,

    Another heavy duty arti­cle, loved it.

    Will tweet about this one.

    When is your book com­ing out? :)

    Steve Shaw
    .-= Steven Shaw´s last blog ..Copy­writ­ing Made Easy – The Michael Camp­bell Way =-.

  6. Shane Arthur on 09.24.2010

    Damn good write. And the videos to accen­tu­ate your points drove it home for the win. Bookmarked.

  7. Shane Arthur on 09.24.2010

    I think we can replace the phrase “Show don’t Tell” with “incep­tion“
    .-= Shane Arthur´s last blog ..Cre­ative Copy Chal­lenge 78 =-.

  8. Hashim Warren on 09.24.2010

    I love the point about pos­i­tive emo­tion trump­ing neg­a­tive emo­tion. That’s why push­ing hope, not fear will give you the most influ­ence.
    .-= Hashim Warren´s last blog ..Have a Triple Threat That Wins You Work =-.

  9. Jeff on 09.24.2010


    Thanks, dude. Glad you liked the videos ; )


    Couldn’t agree with you more on the pos­i­tive emo­tion. Yes, you have to fix a prob­lem, but the empha­sis — or at least the end­ing vibes — should be on the happy outcome.

    - Jeff

  10. Matt Gartland on 09.26.2010

    Won­der­ful analy­sis Jeff!

    Incep­tion struck a num­ber of cords with me — far too many to express here :) I believe that there are an almost infi­nite num­ber of con­clu­sions drawn and tac­tics learned from the film.

    Another that I’ll share is the per­cep­tion of time. In Incep­tion, the deeper the dream level the more warped time becomes. Specif­i­cally, time expands expo­nen­tially within dreams as com­pared with a base­line time unit in “real­ity”. Thus, if you the­o­ret­i­cally run this equa­tion to infin­ity (dream lev­els to the nth degree), then you could achieve per­pet­ual life within a nanosec­ond of real time.

    The corol­lary of infi­nite time for copy­writ­ers is per­sis­tence and blends nicely with the nested sto­ries model. A one-frame story is likely based on mod­ern events, a spe­cific per­son, a given account­ing of some real­ity. These sto­ries will even­tu­ally fade away from mem­ory — some more expe­di­tiously than oth­ers. But with nested sto­ries, the oppor­tu­nity exists to cre­ate a per­pet­ual mem­ory within the reader — one that doesn’t fade away but is uni­ver­sally rel­e­vant as real-time ages.

    I believe Conroy’s direct mail piece above proves this. The nested story of the two col­lege friends achiev­ing vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess — and the core ques­tion itself (“what made the dif­fer­ence?”) — are immune to aging. Such a story and such a ques­tion will exist as long as man has thought in his head. Hence the mem­o­ra­bil­ity of the piece.

    I’ll stop there. Many thanks again Jeff for shar­ing these insights!


  11. Steve Sorenson on 09.27.2010

    Won­der­ful arti­cle. I was med­i­tat­ing recently on a few thoughts that were out­side the con­straints of time. Some­times I spend too much time near the bor­ders of real­ity and don’t feel like com­ing back. Like Matt, I find Incep­tion open­ing infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of thought in the sub-conscious crevices of our minds. Thanks for your words on pos­i­tive men­tal images; they remind me of some of God’s won­ders.
    Steve Sorenson

  12. Martin Stellar on 09.28.2010

    Dude, you rock. This is excel­lent stuff, thanks for being findable.

  13. Jeff on 09.28.2010

    First: Steven, Matt, Steve, and Martin,

    Thank you all for the com­ments — they are dearly appreciated!

    Sec­ond, Matt, while I felt that the expo­nen­tial slow­ing of time was genius for the sake of the story, I didn’t quite buy the fact that it could go on infi­nitely. In fact, at the 4th level down, there was no were else to go, they were then at the limbo-unconstructed uncon­scious. But in some ways that does equate to the time­less. I’ve got a few thoughts here, but think your idea of per­sis­tence is spot on — a great nested story about pri­mal desires ends up being time­less in a way that most other mail­ing pieces can’t. Most of the direct-response ads that I know of which ran for decades involve nested sto­ry­telling. And on the mass media side, Ogilvy specif­i­cally tied the uncon­scious and dreams to the cre­ation of a “Big Idea.” So thanks for shar­ing that. Great stuff.

    I’ll leave the com­ments open for another day or so, but so far, Matt, you look like the win­ner. Please send me your mail­ing address via e-mail and I’ll send you the promised copy of the script :)

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