You’re about to watch the video equivalent of two emotional gut-punches.

Both of them are political and at least one of the two will offend your sensibilities.  But if you can get past that, they’ll be instructive — and with any luck, you’ll find that I have a few insights to share as well.  So here goes:

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And then there’s this one:

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OK, so what do both of these videos have in common?

The emotional violence takes place entirely within your head

The rabbit is never harmed and the poor boy’s head is never shot, except for in your mind’s eye. And that makes both ads all the more emotionally powerful.

But the projection of such a graphic image in the mind of the viewer will invariably offend some viewers. Even though the violence literally took place “off scene” (as in the greek ob skene, which translates as “off-stage”) the ads will still strike many as unfair or obscene. Why?

Because real obscenity comes through the introduction, through any means, of an unnecessarily ugly, violent, or immodest mental image. Naturally, it’s the “unnecessarily” part that gets sticky, but I think most of us could agree that the mental images incited by the two videos are both ugly and violent. They affect us. They are, in fact, cringeworthy. We remember them long after watching. Or at least I do.

And wouldn’t you want the same to be said for your ads?

Obscenity vs. Obscenity

Now, I’m NOT suggesting that you should do or feature something ugly, violent, or immodest to grab attention. It may work for Go Daddy, but that’s really not the kind of obscenity you want.

The kind you want is the kind used in these two ads – the kind where the structure and artifice of your ads entice the audience’s minds to imagine the outcome. There are different names for this technique, ranging from:

but the features remain the same, regardless of what you call it:

1) Start with vivid images

Regardless of whether you are employing visual images (as in print or TV ads), or mental images (as in Radio and copywriting), your ad has to employ sharp, vivid imagery if you hope, at some point, to get the audience to bridge the gaps between, or extend the story beyond, the the images provided in the ad. So if your writing is filled with abstractions, jargon, and technical speak, you’ll need to re-write it in concrete, tangible, emotional, and imaginable language.  And best to start off with a strong hook (or First Mental Image), too.

Notice that the first ad began with a cute little baby bunny sitting on the medical table, next to scalpels and stuff — a shockingly incongruous and vivid image.  The second ad started with an egg on a golf tee; the golf tee intimating the coming violence / bullet.

2) Make sure you’ve got drama

Drama means staging, dramatic tension, and the need to know “what happens next.” Some of this was hinted at in #1 when I wrote of both first images as containing incongruity.  Here’s a great Jerome Bruner quote to explain that:

“Well-formed stories, [Kenneth] Burke proposed, are composed of a pentad of an Actor, an Action, a Goal, a Scene, and an Instrument—plus Trouble. Trouble consists of an imbalance between any of the five elements of the pentad: an Action toward a Goal is inappropriate in a particular Scene . . . an Actor does not fit the Scene . . . or there is a dual Scene . . . or a confusion of Goals.”

In other words, we only create stories or engage our narrative imagination when things don’t fit. If you high school son always comes home from practice at 5:00, you don’t wonder what happened when he pulls into the driveway at 5:00 pm, just as he always does. You start wondering what’s up – and spinning stories about possible causes — when there’s a deviation, either he’s home way too early or way too late.  So a rabbit on a green field doesn’t get our story-telling engines running. But a rabbit on an operating table clenches our gut and makes us wonder what the hell is going on.

The same thing happens with the egg on a gold tee. It’s unusual and we wonder if the egg will get smashed by a driver or what. When it’s shot by a bullet, we wonder what else we’ll get to see in slow motion as the bullet rips through it…

So if you want to compel your audience to imagine what happens next, or to fill in the gaps, you have to set-up a “troubled” or incongruous scene. Pull the bow back to create tension, then let your audience’s imagination fly.

3) Set the stakes high

Something emotionally compelling has to be at stake. We naturally don’t want anything bad to happen to the bunny. We just don’t. So there’s no small amount of audience tension when the rabbit is picked up and carried to the blender. Ack! And then we see a human baby on the operating table next…

Similarly, who doesn’t cringe when the next “target” to pop up (immediately following the rather symbolic melon) is a boy’s head? And how much anxiety do you feel when the bullet enters from the left side of the screen? Again, a human life (and, symbolically, far more than just one life) is palpably at stake.

Got it? You need high stakes. So even if you don’t think of your product or service as one that invites strong emotion, you’ll need to find the inherent drama of the product, or develop a drama-filled use-scenario or need-scenario centered around your product. Although this AT&T ad doesn’t make use of closure, it certainly injects some drama into one of their network’s most notable (positive) features:

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4) Think Symbolically and/or Shift From Literal to Symbolic Imagery

If you’ve seen Pixar’s UP, you’ve been witness to the power of this. I wish I could show you the scene where Carl first realizes he’s in love with Ellie as he sighs a “wow” and leans onto his balloon, only to have it pop, and then to have that sound matched by the “pop” of their wedding photographer’s flash — for it’s amazing what’s intimated and covered in the space of those two pops — but sadly this YouTube video clip starts with the flash photography.

Yet this clip itself is a miniature masterpiece of visual storytelling. Just watch how much your mind fills in as the images on the screen take on increasing symbolic importance with every repetition. Ask yourself: what do I know is going on here, and how do I know it, and you’ll get an entire lesson on the fine art of closure. And should it then surprise you how emotionally powerful this montage turns out to be? I haven’t yet met the person who won’t tear up when watching it:

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And for an incredibly cruder, commercial example of this technique, there’s always this guffaw-inducing Levitra Commercial:

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Or, on a similar note, Hitchcock’s lovely train tunnel ending to North by Northwest:

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5) Force the most important “beats” to take place between (or after) the images

As I implied with the balloon popping, Carl and Ellie fell in love, grew up together, and got engaged between those two pops. In the ads I featured at the beginning of this post, the (imagined) bunny blending took place after the screen went dark.  And the bullet continued towards the boy’s head only in our minds, for it was transmuted into a Call to Action on the screen.

I’d go into this further, but I think John Barber has already done an admirable job of this in an old Form is Function column on Comixpedia.

Or, you could check out the famous shower scene from Psycho, which, like the bunny ad, makes great use of sound to guide your mind in creating the images not shown to your eyes:

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Bonus Tip: Have Confidence in the Impact of Closure

I almost wrote, “have faith in your readers,” and that’s good advice too, but the technique itself can often be more confidence inspiring and directly observable than reader reactions.  And as a rather striking example of the power of closure, I’ll introduce you to the very recent phenomenon of “bubbling.”

gestaltPic2So, a classic example of closure is this picture of a non-triangle:

Even though we can’t help but see the triangle, it’s not really there.  There are only three pacman-looking black circles. It’s our mind that completes the form of the triangle and forces the image onto our imagination.

And here’s the modern version of that known as Bubbling:

celebrity-blog-bubbling-olivia-wildeAccording to the internet, bubbling was created by a young Mormon man who wanted to follow his religion’s prohibitions against pornography while still, um, aiding his imagination.

The added covering from the bubbles makes swimsuit pictures that much more provokative. And indeed that’s exactly the right word for it, because the bubbles “provoke” your mind to fill in the gaps in a way that the actually more revealing bathing suit doesn’t.

In fact, I chose this picture from because it was slightly less scandalous than the rest (and also because it featured both the before and after versions and was of a known celebrity, Olivia Wilde)

So in a world of “Show, Don’t Tell” advice, sometimes it’s better if you leave the drama off-stage and allow the real showing to take place in your readers’ imaginations. When you do that, you might end up with an ad that’s seen as “unfair” by your competition, and that’s no bad thing.

P.S. My apologies for the predominance of “sex and violence” examples. They were the easiest to find and most demonstrably obvious examples of the phenomenon available; though I hope the Pixar montage shows off a more elevated use of this technique


  1. Grimey on 03.14.2011

    Mr. Sexton … that was like a semester long course on writing technique crammed in a blog length spurt. Flagged & Tagged for future reference. Will need more time to let this stuff BUBBLE in my brain. g

  2. Holly Buchanan on 03.14.2011


    Brilliant insight as always – though the first two examples almost made me leave before reading more. Glad I stuck around. Today, so few creatives trust their audience – not showing a graphic image can be so much more powerful than showing one.

  3. Jeff on 03.14.2011

    Thanks, Holly,

    Yeah, those first two ads really are punches to the gut. But they’re also visceral examples of the technique and the triggers that got me thinking about this, so I thought I’d warn people up front, but keep the ads as examples.

    Glad you stuck around.

    – Jeff

  4. Riley Harrison on 03.14.2011

    All the videos evoked a strong emotional feeling but the cell phone add was the one that had the most compelling case for making a sale. The functionality sold me and I was thinking that really illustrates a strong selling point for that product.

  5. Jeff on 03.14.2011


    Yup. The AT&T ad had high drama for a specific service. It made a pitch. Ideally, you want to combine that high drama WITH closure / frameline magnetism. Right now, most advertisers only use closure when they CAN’T use a literal or graphic approach, as in the Levitra Ad. But the best minds in media and rhetoric/persuasion have often argued that it is preferable to use closure by choice rather than as a workaround of last resort.

    – Jeff

  6. Chuck McKay on 03.16.2011

    Jeff, your 5th point, that the most important beats should happen between the images, just explained why I’m drawn to Jim Croce’s lyrics.

    “Operator, could you help me place this call. You see the number on the matchbook is old and faded. She’s living in LA with my best old ex-friend, Ray. A guy she says she knew well and sometimes hated.”

    Then to, “Give me the number if you can find it so I can call just to tell ’em I’m fine and to show I’ve overcome the blow.”

    Provided only a few clues by what the protagonist says, my imagination fills in the rest of the story, which isn’t said. My version of this story won’t be exactly your version, but so what? They are each going to be rich, nuanced, and emotionally satisfying.

    For years I’ve admired Croce. You’ve helped me to understand why. Thank you.

  7. Jeff on 03.16.2011

    Wow, Chuck, you are absolutely right! I’m a huge Croce fan and had never thought about his lyrics that way. And now that you’ve pointed it out, a lot of lyrics (like a lot of poetry) fit into that situation. I know Roy has used the “She’s so fine, there’s no telling where the money went” chorus from Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible as another example of that.

    Thanks for commenting!

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