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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