It’s a slight change, but it makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?

The photo comes courtesy of a rather clever ad campaign for The Cape Times — something I was turned onto by the always-wonderful No Caption Needed blog. The intent was to make us see these iconic photos with new eyes, allowing the idea of a self-taken-phone-camera-pic to shake up a classic. And it worked.

But it also transforrmed the photos into something creepy, especially this one.

It’s one thing to look on as the ecstasy of victory so overcomes a sailor’s sensibilities that he kisses a stranger in the street; it’s entirely another when the sailor still has the self-awareness to phone-pic himself during his supposed blissed-out moment.

Sometimes, it’s just a whole lot better when someone else is controlling the camera and the spotlight. In fact, not just sometimes, but often.

Translating this to advertising and marketing:

  • When others sing your praises, it comes off as credible and genuine; when you sing your praises, you come off as a wanna be Donald Trump
  • When reviews praise an item to the sky, we believe it; when product copy does so, we read it with a large grain of salt
  • When you tell me how great someone else is, you come off as passionate; when you tell me how great you are, you come off as arrogant

Well.. you get the picture. Why not let someone else hold the camera.  Or, if you’ve got the camera, why not point it at something other than yourself?

You, my friend, are hardwired to find meaning; you can not help but connect the dots.

Case in point, the triangle to the right doesn’t exist. The only shapes in that picture are three black pac-man shapes.

Yeah, the negative space left by those pacman shapes include wedges of white — but the larger triangle that you see connecting those wedges of white into a meaningful pattern only exists in your mind.

And yet, if the pacmans are there, you can’t help but see that triangle, can you?

In fact, the only way to not see the triangle is to remove two of the pacman figures, ’cause as long as the dots are there, you WILL connect them.

Designers refer to this as “closure,” and it’s more than just a parlor trick or visual illusion.

Closure and Image-Text Interaction

Closure, as it turns out, not only comes into play between elements within a picture, but also between image and text. And this interplay was especially on display in a recent post by the always-interesting Derek Halpern (h/t Melissa Breau)

Halpern references recent psychological studies showing that statements accompanied by related images are considered more believable than the same statement without an image. So, a statement like “The liquid inside a thermometer is magnesium” was more frequently rated as true when it was accompanied by a picture of a thermometer!

Similarly, statements about whether some obscure “celebrity” was alive or dead were also more frequently rated as true when the statement was accompanied by a picture of the celebrity. And this effect was the same regardless of whether the pictured celebrity was pronounced dead or still living.

Clearly, pictures have persuasive power beyond what anyone has ever suspected.

And just knowing this is incredibly useful, but in my opinion, the real meat of these studies comes from asking WHY. Fortunately, one of the posts that Derek links to nicely summarizes the hypothesis formed by the scientists who conducted these tests [emphasis mine]:

“The reason for the difference lies in the suspected mechanism at work. The “truthiness” researchers (Newman et al., 2012) speculate that a not necessarily probative but relevant image, like the tire slide above, increases the “cognitive availability” of the concept. That means the mind finds it easier to think about and elaborate on the concept. In the process, that makes the claim seem more familiar which in turn makes it feel more true: “Truthiness” achieved.

There are also other mechanisms that facilitate elaboration. For example, the researchers refer to the notion of a “semantically predictive sentence,” which means phrasing that leads a listener to anticipate what the upcoming words will be. For example, “the stormy seas tossed the boat” is more semantically predictive than “he saved up his money and bought a boat.” That expectation causes a listener to feel more familiarity and translate that into greater veracity (Whittlesea, 1993). When people are engaged — by anticipating the final word in this case — they engage in more fluent processing and that leads to a feeling of truth.

That process extends past the role of imagery. In Newman and associates’ second experiment, they showed that including non-probative words instead of a photo produced the same effect (e.g. accompanying a political leader’s name with information about ethnicity, sex, hair color, etc. – factors that create a picture in the mind, but without telling the reader whether the figure is alive or dead). The additional information led people to believe that the associated claim was more likely to be true.”

Ok, so first thing, what the heck does non-probative mean? Basically, it means the photo does not logically prove the statement to be true or false. Non-probative images are merely decorative.

For instance, if you have a statement like “The US has the highest incarceration rate of any country” and you then accompany that statement with a bar graph like the one on the right, then that image would be considered “probative” because it would logically “prove” the statement to be true, assuming that you took the image at “face value.”

This is opposed to a more decorative image of a convict behind bars. That photo would be related to the statement about incarceration rates, but it would not logically “prove” anything.

Why “Non-Probative” Doesn’t Mean Non-Persuasive

Although a non-probative photograph may not “prove” anything, it can still suggest and imply.

So who says suggestion is any less persuasive than outright statement?

For instance, if that photo of the convict behind bars was black, it might remind the test subject that the US jails a disproportionate number of African Americans — a visual suggestion that would surely color one’s judgement of the accompanying statement, right?

Because people can’t help but connect the dots between image and statement.

It works the same way with the celebrity statements as well. because we believe in internal consistency. If someone hands us a statement with spelling and grammatical errors, we become less likely to lend credibility to the statement or the person who wrote it. Anyone recall Dan Quayle’s Potato gaff?

So when someome mentions a little known celebrity and provides a picture of said celebrity, we not only automatically connect the dots between picture and celebrity, but we connect the dots between knowing who the heck one is talking about with knowing what the heck one is talking about. The thought process goes something like, you obviously know who this guy is and I don’t, so you probably also know whether or not he’s still alive… 

Why do I think this is a greater factor than the psychologists’ “increased cognitive availability” hypothesis?

Because scientists who conducted the same test, but who accompanied the celebrity statements with facts and stats about the celebrity instead of a picture recorded the same effect: the stats boosted the perceived credibility exactly as the photos did in the previous test. And my guess is that the stats “prove” to the test subjects that the people making the statement really know who they’re talking about, in pretty much the same way that a picture would. Makes sense right?

But would stats really help people hold an idea in their heads? Would stats make the celebrity more “cognitively available” to the test subjects? I rather doubt it.

So it’s really less about helping people hold the idea in their heads, and more about subtly convincing them you know what you’re talking about.

And images don’t have to do that explicitly, as implication and closure work just fine, if not even better.

A picture of an old-fashioned thermometer displays a silvery strip in the middle of it, implying the idea of liquid metal. Connecting the dots between image and statement, and suddenly the idea of liquid magnesium seems a whole lot more plausible…

It makes me wonder if a picture of a modern-day thermometer would have had the same results…

Using Closure To Improve Persuasion & Impact

So… we know this closure between image and text creates greater believability. But how would one use it for images alone?

Well, for images, the short answer is to give the viewer 2 + 2 rather than just handing them 4. Create an image that makes them connect the dots between elements of the image.  Here are some great examples of that:

OK, so these are cheating a bit because they’re both text-based images, but neither of them make much sense until you connect the dots — allowing both ads to make their statements all the more strongly.

Here’s another example, this time with an honest, no-kidding image:

Again, the image is meaningless until you mentally “fill the gap” about what those sets of feet really indicate. Closure at work. There’s also a nice gap/connection between the stockinged feet and the text.

And on a more purely visual note, much of the emotional impact of this image can be attributed to the “gaps” that it forces your mind to fill in:

Great example of closure used to increase mental engagement and impact. But what about using closure to select more powerful imagery to accompany your persuasive copy and messaging?

How to Use This In Web Copy

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Use the “I saw it with my own eyes, so it must be real” approach

If you’ve got a testimonial, you could, as Derek suggests, place a picture of the customer who gave it to you next to the testimonial. That’ll work. Or, if you don’t have that, you could take a photo of the hand-written testimonial and place it next to the testimonial.

It sounds silly, but just imagine the difference between someone saying “this person wrote in to say X” and someone handing you the actual hand-written note and saying “look what customer X had to say.” Which would be more persuasive? The latter, right? Because then you could say that you saw the testimonial “with your own eyes.”

Of course, the “so it must be true” part would likely go unsaid, but it would be all the more powerful for it. And that’s why an image of the hand-written testimonial would be more persuasive than the statement alone.

So within your sales copy, determine which elements people would most want to see with their own eyes, then find images that would give them a similar sense of verification.

Another example, I once worked with a metal roofing company that claimed a no-kidding 50-year life span on their roofs. Now the claim and guarantee is great. But what I advised them to do was  find the oldest roof they had ever installed (which turned out to be 30+ years old) and to get both an establishing pic of the building/roof and a close-up picture of the metal “tiles.”  It’s one thing to claim a 50-year life span, and another entirely to show a 30-year roof that looks brand new.

Just don’t do the cheese-ball thing of using blacked out bank statements to “prove” how much money you make!

2. Use images to suggest and emotionally prime belief

No one does this better than apple. Take a look at this screen shot from Apple’s page on the new iPad 4:

It’s not an accident that the iPad sports an image of two Porsche’s about to race, or that the image is from a graphics intensive game. The messaging is about speed after all. Speed achieved through high-performance engineering. Don’t you think the image of “Porsche Race Cars” brings all that to mind rather powerfully?

Here’s another example:

So… what the heck is that black ring in the middle of the picture?

It’s not a magnifying glass. Nor is it a camera lens, is it? Maybe it’s some kind of weird bastard love child between the two…

But it doesn’t matter, does it. We instinctively know that this is showing us that even when you magnify the picture 2.5X, it’s still high-res enough to look crisp and un-pixelated. Of course, the copy never makes that claim. But the picture certainly suggests it, doesn’t it?

If Images Combined with Statements Are Powerful, What About Video?

But were this really starts to come into it’s own is in explanatory videos. But that’s a subject for another post…


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?



by Jeff

The Alamo Drafthouse, pretty much the coolest movie theatre chain on the planet, came out with the following promotion for the summer of 2012:

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Yup.  That’s pretty much PURE GENIUS.

They aren’t playing up the tangibles of the movie business — the latest release, the availability of 3-D IMAX or dolby sound, or say the comfort of ultra-plush seating — they’re tapping into the intangible draw that many or most 40 and 50-somethings have for the pop-culture milestones of their youth.  

As a result of this emotional draw that they purposely tapped into, Alamo Drafthouse will likely pay less to show these movies and draw large crowds of very appreciative, excited audiences — crowds that likely wouldn’t have come out for the latest and greatest summer blockbuster fare.

Why Not Your Business?

Sure, The Alamo Drafthouse is IN the entertainment business. It’s probably easier for them to generate excitement around a night out at the movies than it might be for, say, a plumber to tap into the power of nostalgia. But it’s not impossible for the plumber. How about selling claw-foot tubs big enough to let a 6-foot adult stretch out and float, the way you used to be able to when you were a little kid?  Sort of a feel like a kid again, bathtub for the affluent type promotion…

Maybe you’re rejecting that specific idea, and that’s fine, the point isn’t that that’s a great idea, but that it’s possible for most businesses to inject an element of sentiment and nostalgia and excitement into their business rather than resigning themselves to pushing nothing but tangibles.

Because when you’re nothing but tangibles, you’re a commodity, or on the road to commodity-ville. 

So ask yourself this:

  • What are your customers willing to re-call, commemorate, and celebrate with you?
  • How can you help them do that?
  • What kind of anniversary or connection or historical association could you choose to celebrate?

Most importantly, how could YOU use nostalgia and sentiment in your business?

 “In fact, I’m going to apologize. This whole ‘dream myth’ has been propagated by news reporters like me. Because we love telling this story, we love the dream. Whenever you write a profile of some person who is a success or who is going to jail, you always start at the end and follow the line back so it looks like it all makes sense. You sit someone down and you ask, “When did you first dream of being an opera singer (or a Nobel–prize winning economist, or the worst inside trader of all time)?”

Then you ask, “What obstacles did you have to overcome? How did you triumph?” Reporters are no different from every storyteller through time. We want to tell and hear the hero’s journey. The epic myth.

You know what never makes it into the hero’s journey? All the dreams that didn’t work out. There’s just not time. You never hear the part of the legend where the hero just wanted to chill for the summer, hang out in Portland, and figure some stuff out. Get his head straight. That happens, but every storyteller edits that out.”

— NPR Reporter, Robert Smith, during his Reed College Commencement Address

It is perhaps fitting that Steven Pressfield has run a series of articles on “The Hero’s Journey” of late, because his latest book explores exactly those areas of the journey that Robert Smith accuses reporters of leaving or editing out of most subjects’ “success stories.”  The part where the hero — deliberately or unconsciously — choses the wrong career path, sometimes repeatedly. Or where she sandbags it for a summer to “get her head straight” or work through some stuff.

In other words, most people leave out exactly the part that the rest of us desperately need to know — what happened to get you from the point where you weren’t making it to the point where you were!  How’d you make the leap, man?  Tell us!

And there’s a simple reason most people don’t tell us, even beyond the reporters desire to present us with slices of life with the boring parts cut out. Quite frankly, that shit is embarrassing. Who wants to talk about self-sabotage, mis-steps, and unsuccessful careers. Not me.

That’s what makes Steven Pressfield such an incredible treasure and stand-up guy: he’ll do it. And in Turning Pro, he does just that; he gives you exactly the nitty gritty on HOW to turn pro, what happened before he turned pro, and what you can expect in the journey.

So if that’s the kind of stuff you’d like to learn — if you’re tired of reading all those dream come true stories with the important shit cut out — then link on over to Black Irish Books and grab yourself a copy!

P.S. Black Irish Books is the new publishing company started by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne.  It’s a great venture and worth supporting, so even if you’d rather get your copy from Amazon, please consider ordering direct from the author.