Matthew Hutson’s jour­nal­ism on Mag­i­cal Think­ing has been inspir­ing my thoughts on adver­tis­ing for a few years now, so when his book on the sub­ject came out, I made it a point to pester his pub­lisher for a review copy of The 7 Laws of Mag­i­cal Think­ing.

But rather than write a tra­di­tional review, I’m going to:

  • Just come right out and rec­om­mend the book. If you’re read­ing this blog, you’ll love the book — go grab a copy. And also…
  • Pro­vide a quick sum­mary of the 7 Laws as described in the book.

Fol­low up posts will focus on the Q&A’s with the author and adver­tis­ing appli­ca­tions. So now it’s onto those tit­u­lar 7 Laws.

Matthew Hutson’s 7 Laws of Mag­i­cal Think­ing are:

1) Objects Carry Essences

Think sports mem­o­ra­bilia, Catholic relics, his­tor­i­cal arti­facts.  The for­mer own­ers of these objects, for­mer acts that they took part in, and so on have imbued them with greater mean­ing and weight that go beyond the merely sym­bolic — they have essences. Jackie O’s fake pearl neck­lace sold for over $200K at auc­tion, not because the lac­quered mar­bles had any intrin­sic value, but because they had some of Jackie’s essence in them.

A quote from the book says it all:

There are many lay­ers of belief,” psy­chol­o­gist Carol Nemeroff says. “And the answer for many peo­ple, espe­cially with regard to magic, is, ‘Most of me doesn’t believe but some of me does.’” Peo­ple will often acknowl­edge their gut reac­tion and say it makes no sense to act on it—but do it anyway.”

We may not con­sciously believe in essences, but our actions prove oth­er­wise. That’s why peo­ple recoil from a laun­dered arti­cle of cloth­ing if they are told it was worn by a ser­ial killer. It’s why you don’t want an exact replica of your wed­ding ring, but would insist on the actual ring, instead.

2) Sym­bols Have Power

Why did you know you where in trou­ble when your par­ents called you by your full name?  And why, as a par­ent, do you fully name your child when exert­ing author­ity over her?  There’s some­thing pow­er­ful about a name-giver fully pro­nounc­ing a named entity and we instinc­tively rec­og­nize it; sym­bols have power.

I can’t help think­ing of the famous Monty Python and the Holy Grail skit where the peas­ant has his polit­i­cal rant about how “strange women lyin’ in ponds dis­trib­utin’ swords is no basis for a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment. Supreme exec­u­tive power derives from a man­date from the masses, not from some far­ci­cal aquatic cer­e­mony.”  Yeah, it’s the elec­tion and not the cer­e­mony that mat­ters. And yet, the Pres­i­dent of the United States doesn’t become pres­i­dent after the elec­tion. The President-Elect only becomes Pres­i­dent after the swear­ing in ceremony.

And mar­ket­ing sym­bols have tremen­dous power — the power to make lux­ury brand wear­ers feel bet­ter about them­selves, and sporty-brand wear­ers to feel more ath­letic, and to make wine taste bet­ter.  And let’s not for­get Apple icon’s abil­ity to make buy­ers open up their wal­lets. Those sym­bols have power, indeed.

3) Actions Have Dis­tant Consequences

What hap­pens to the voodoo doll also hap­pens to the tar­geted per­son, despite the phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion of doll and tar­get. But that’s con­scious belief in Magic. So what about cheer­ing on your favorite team while watch­ing the game in your liv­ing room? Does your men­tal sup­port of the team matter?

What about pre-game or pre–Big Day rit­u­als? Most of us have them, and most of us believe, at least on some level, that they help, that they have an effect on the results we achieve, or else why would we do them, right?

And what about tempt­ing fate? Does switch­ing check­out lines make the line you leave move faster? What about not “jinx­ing” a pick­nick by talk­ing about the weather?  Or “knock­ing on wood”?  If you think about it, almost all super­sti­tion is based on “spooky action at a dis­tance.” And super­sti­tion is uni­ver­sal. You can’t ignore it when mod­el­ing how peo­ple make decisions.

4) The Mind Knows No Bounds

Two words: The Secret. But again, that’s an exam­ple of peo­ple con­sciously believ­ing in Magic, rather than hav­ing their sub­con­scious belief reveal itself through every­day behav­iors, despite a con­scious denial of said belief. So how about Syn­chronic­ity. Even if we don’t believe in syn­chronic­ity, we see a causal con­nec­tion between think­ing about our spouses, only to have the call us at that very moment.  A part of us believes that they called us because we were think­ing about them.

Sim­i­larly, most of us have also held the notion that we can “feel it” when some­one stares at us. We under­stand what it means to feel as if we’re being watched.  And how exactly would we be able to feel that if we didn’t have some notion that the con­scious­ness of one per­son can be picked up on by another with­out any sort of medi­a­tion or direct communication?

5) The Soul Lives On

Even those of us who don’t believe in heaven or an after­life, still act as if they do. They’ll still go to a grave to pay their respects (to whom, exactly?), or hang on to con­tact infor­ma­tion in their cell phones or com­put­ers.  Or, in a more famous exam­ple that Hut­son quotes from The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing, Joan Did­ion real­ized why she had an emo­tional block against giv­ing away her dead husband’s shoes: she couldn’t do it because, some­where in her uncon­scious, she still felt that “he would need shoes if he returned.”

And like most exam­ples of Mag­i­cal Think­ing, the mere real­iza­tion that one’s think­ing is mag­i­cal doesn’t release the spell. As Did­ion wrote of her he’ll-need-shoes rev­e­la­tion: “The recog­ni­tion of this thought by no means erad­i­cated the thought.” To re-quote Carol Numeroff: “Most of me doesn’t believe, but part of me does.”

6) The World Is Alive

If you’ve ever thrown a ham­mer after hit­ting your thumb, or kicked an inan­i­mate object after bump­ing into it, or yelled at your car, you’ve acted as if the thing was alive and in pos­ses­sion of a con­scious will, if not out­right mal­ice. Another great exam­ple of this comes from the movie Back­draft:

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Again, this guy is will­ing to con­sciously square with his idea of liv­ing fire, but most of us, at some level, have sim­i­lar beliefs. Or at least we act as if we do.

7) Every­thing Hap­pens for a Reason

We are wired to find mean­ing, and espe­cially to look for and find mean­ing in the events that befall us. As Matthew Hut­son writes in the book:

We com­pose our life sto­ries using the data given — the some­what ran­dom hap­pen­ings of our pasts — but then we get the roles of the data and the inter­pre­ta­tion con­fused: we stare in won­der at how well the events seem to fit the theme, for­get­ting that we cus­tom fit the theme to the events. It’s another exam­ple of the Texas sharp­shooter fal­lacy, but instead of draw­ing a tar­get around a clus­ter of bul­let holes and gawk­ing at the aim of a marks­man, your con­struct­ing a story around a series of occur­rences and mar­veling at the wis­dom and insight of prov­i­dence. One stray bul­let and you wouldn’t be who you are today”

You can see some of this mag­i­cal think­ing at work in the roman­tic com­edy trope of “meet­ing cute.” To arrange for your leads to meet cute is to arrange for them to acci­den­tally bump into each other through chance or hap­pen­stance, so that when they later fall in love, it feels more like their cou­pling was fated rather than self-directed.

Why This Stuff Matters

In a word, you have to meet peo­ple where they are, and per­suade them on their terms, not yours. Peo­ple aren’t ratio­nal lit­tle robots. They are irra­tional. Or, if you pre­fer, supra-rational. The good news is that they are, to bor­row a phrase from Dan Ariely, pre­dictably irrational.

Mag­i­cal Think­ing is one of the ways in which peo­ple are pre­dictably irra­tional. And know­ing the laws of mag­i­cal think­ing helps you make those predictions.

In other words, you really ought to go buy a copy of The 7 Laws of Mag­i­cal Think­ing if your job involves influ­enc­ing decisions.

An images story appeal is its abil­ity to cause view­ers to imag­ine the story sur­round­ing the cap­tured moment.  What hap­pened before and after the moment depicted in the paint­ing of photo, and, by exten­sion, what’s the mean­ing of the moment being captured?

The idea is for peo­ple to see the image and ask them­selves, “What’s the story here?” That’s story appeal.  And at least accord­ing to David Ogilvy, story appeal is cru­cial for adver­tis­ing imagery, which makes it a skill worth studying.

And with that in mind, is there any­body in the world bet­ter at cre­at­ing images with story appeal than Nor­man Rockwell?

Just take a look at the following:

Any chance you could look at any of those and NOT under­stand the story that’s being told, not “pic­ture” the imme­di­ate before and after moments belong­ing to these images?

How He Does It

Rockwell’s depicts rituals.

It is the eas­ily rec­og­nized and self-identifiable nature of these Amer­i­can rit­u­als that give his paint­ings their emo­tional appeal. And because we rec­og­nize the rit­ual, we also instantly know what took place just before and after the moment cap­tured in the pic­ture. In our minds, we enter into the sto­ry­land Rock­well illus­trates for us.

With­out rit­ual it’s much harder for an audi­ence to have that reac­tion, or for an image to exert that kind of story appeal.

Show me a car dri­ving down the road and I feel no auto­matic urge to enter into the story of that car and it’s dri­ver. There’s no rit­ual there. Show me a car dri­ving down the road that’s drag­ging a bunch of shoes from the bumper and has a “Just Mar­ried” on the back win­dow, and the story becomes clear — both of what hap­pened before the cou­ple got into the car and what’ll most likely hap­pen when they get out of the car at their destination.

That’s the sto­ry­telling power of rit­ual. But rit­ual isn’t just lim­ited to sacra­ments and for­mal­i­ties. We all have our daily rit­u­als, too. Show me a guy climb­ing into his car with his travel cof­fee mug and a brief­case, and I’ll think “com­mute.” Our take lunchtime for example:

Why This Matters

While the impor­tance of story appeal is obvi­ous for visual ads, it’s impor­tant for radio (and TV) ads, too. Here’s why:

Just as every writer has heard the advice to “Show, Don’t Tell,” every writer of drama has heard the adage to “enter late and leave early” when writ­ing their scenes. Basi­cally, skip the expo­si­tion at the begin­ning (enter late), and let the audi­ence fig­ure out the obvi­ous con­clu­sions while you move onto a new scene (leave early).

But that sort of begs the ques­tion: how do you do that?

Answer: tap into the power of rit­ual — show rec­og­niz­able situations.

And how do I know this works and is sound advice?

An Adver­tis­ing Example

Want to see an inter­est­ing exam­ple of a com­mer­cial that taps into the power of rit­ual and both enters late and leaves early?  Check this out:

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So what about you? How are you har­ness­ing into the power of rit­ual and story appeal with your ads?