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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