Want your photo to compel onlookers to find out “the rest of the story”? Capture a scene that’s out of balance.
Whatever scene you capture, it’ll be the imbalance — the conflict between incognruence elements — that creates story appeal and adds intrigue to your photo.
When everything fits, we have no need to wonder at any kind of explanatory backstory. But when we experience the extraoardinary, not only do we pay attention, but we have a built-in need to understand the cause and meaning of the exception. A need that can’t be triggered absent imbalance or trouble.
If your wife comes home every evening at 5:30 pm, and you see her car roll into the driveway at 5:30, you’re not about to wonder why, are you? There’s no trouble, no curiosity
But if it’s 6:45 pm and she hasn’t come home or e-mailed or called, well… you’ll start to wonder why, right? And in wondering, you’ll start creating scenarios — stories! — to explain the exception to your wife’s ordinary routine. It’s called worry.
So here’s the thing: for any visual scene, there are only 5–6 basic elements at play, and the imbalance usually only occurs between two of them. For instance a person pictured might be attempting to accomplish a goal with an outlandish or rather exceptional tool. Here’s an example of just that kind of imbalance:
Of course, the image is made all the more powerful by the symbolism inherent in the incongruence. But the symbolism only enhances the story appeal inherent in the imbalance, it doesn’t create it. How do I know, because photos depicting similar action-tool imbalances create similar amounts of story appeal and intrigue:
Again, there is a lot of symbolism in these photos that helps enhance the impact, along with many visually arresting aspects of these photographs that also add to their ability to hold our attention, but these elements are additive and not generative, when it comes to story appeal. They enhance; they do not create intrigue. That’s why the heart of all these civilian-soldier photos lies the same central imbalance — the same engine for story appeal.
Another example is the action-agent imbalance. The things being done by or to a person are out of balance with the nature of the person pictured. Famous example:
And here’s a very similar photo showing the same imbalance:
And here’s a very different photo that still manages to capture that same agent-action imbalance:
What’s the point?
According to the late, great David Ogilvy the most effective, hardest working advertising images are those with what he called “Story Appeal.” Yet no one that I’ve been able to find or have heard of has ever made a methodical study of just what goes into creating story appeal within an image.
But it’s not like it’s an impossible code to crack… and I thinkI can say (without sounding too imodest, I hope) that I have cracked at least a part of that code…
Interested in reading more about this? Let me know either in the comments section or by e-mail.
P.S. There are other elements and factors that can make an image visually striking and appealing that don’t require imbalance. The extreme beauty on display in an Ansel Adams photo is one example. But wherever you find story appeal, you’ll also find imbalance.
40 years ago, Coke made their legendary “Hilltop” commercial, featuring a chorus of young people singing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” You can watch it here:
And 40 years later, Coke made this commercial, titled “Chorus,” featuring another chorus of young people, this time singing a small section of the Oasis song, “Whatever.” It’s another brilliant ad, that’s startingly different from “Hilltop” despite the superficial similarities. Check it out:
So what are these startling differences?
There Are 3 Diffences in Content
1) Ignoring vs. Admiting the Gritty Reality/Downside
“Hilltop” is sort of a fantasy world of “appletrees and honey bees / and snow white turtle doves,” with not a cloud in site or so much as an evil or greedy thought to be found.
The “Chorus” ad on the other hand, continuously acknowledges the existence of tanks, greed, corruption, weapon systems, defensive and xenophobic walls, etc. And yet, the optimism of the ad is strengthened rather than harmed for the acknowledgement. More on this later!
2) Sentimentality vs. Data
The “Hilltop” ad is all about the emotional moment, with no text on the screen or factual anything to get in the way. They believe in world piece and are symbolically representing it by singing in unison within their multicultural youth chorus. It’s a sentimental piece purely in step with the zeitgeist of 1971.
The “Chorus” ad has an overall positive sentiment — there are reasons to believe in a better world — but the text on the screen provides those very reasons for believing. Reasons which take the form of hard math and statistics: for every X bad things, there are 10x good things.”
3) Wishes vs. Action
The “Hilltop” ad literally sings of what these young people “would like” to do — “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love” — regardless of how difficult or just plain impossible the feat or of how little these people are actually doing to make this candy-coated sentiment a reality.
In contrast, when the “Chorus” ad champions the reasons to believe in a better world, they consist of actions that people are taking: making teddy bears, donating blood, baking a cake, having a baby. Forget what you’d like to do, tell me what you’ve done.
So What Does Coke Know That You Don’t?
Whether Coke consciously understands this or whether they’re just able to hire talented artists who grok it subconsciously, our culture radically changes it’s overall worldview every 40 years. The spirit of the times changes on a profound level, and if you’re left out of step with those times, you and your message will get dismissed and ignored, if not riducled outright.
So what are these 40 year cycles I’m talking about?
I learned about them from my partner Roy H. Williams, and to understand them, you first need to re-frame the way you think about a “generation.”
We typically think of a generation as a set of birth cohorts: people born within 5–10 years of each other. But for this model, it helps to think of a generation as a general world outlook that kids develop and then upsell to their parents. And there are really only two templates for this outlook:
So every 40 years we swap from an Idealist Generational outlook to a Civic Generational outlook. 1963 represented a swap from Civic to Idealist, and 2003 represented the shift back from Idealist to Civic. And from that you might have a pretty good idea of what the two generational outlooks are like, but let’s expand on that a bit…
Idealist generational outlooks create spiritual awakenings. And sure enough, we’ve had a “Great Awakening” in this country every 80 years or so, pretty much like clockwork, starting from the first Great Awakening in 1720 and continuing onto the “Fourth Great Awakening” in the early 1960s.
Idealists, or what Roy terms “Me Generations” prrimarily engage the culture through:
- A Beautiful Dream of Freedom from Restraint
- A Hunger for Self Expression
- A Search for Individuality
That sort of sounds like the 60s and 70s, doesn’t it? Of course, take these values too far and you get the phony posing, conspicuous consumption, and alienation of the 80s. Reacting to exactly that excess, you get a gradually rising Civic Generational outlook, first expressed by Gen-Xers, and brought into the mainstream by Millenials…
Civic Generations are generally known for coming together in the face of a crisis, usually through military action. Think “The Greatest Generation” in WWII. And, yes, you can take that same basic 80 year cycle and track major wars by that same cycle, Revolutionary, Civil, and WWII.
As opposed to an Idealist generation, the Civic outlook includes:
- A Beautiful Dream of Working Together for the Common Good
- A Hunger for Acceptance as a Member of a Team
- A Search for Significance
If the Boomers of the sixties rejected conformity, the Gen-Xers and Millenials of the aughts rejected pretense — they wanted the truth, even if it was ugly. The didn’t want to “sell out,” but sought to do something “real” that “mattered.”
This is how “Being cool” become “Keeping it Real.” And why the preternaturally cool, living large, and totally in charge James Bond became the damaged and flawed Jason Bourne, dealing with a seriously messed up situation that’s bigger than him and that he didn’t create, but that he’s forced to solve anyway.
Idealist = “Hilltop” and Civic = “Chorus”
So ultimately, what Coke knows that you don’t is how to stay in-step with the spirit of the age in order to ensure your marketing message is as effective as possible.
So where can you learn more about Idealist and Civic generations, and specifically what to expect and how to succeed as this current Civic generation rises to a peak? Fortunately, Roy H. William’s new book, Pendulum, explains exactly that. It’s an eye-opening fascinating read, from an intellectual standpoint, and also one of the more practical books you’ll buy this year.
Now, while you certainly can go buy the book from Amazon, you can also get that same hardover book for the discounted rate of $7 over at PendulumInAction while also getting some extra “immediately actionable” goodies thrown in as a bonus. The extra goodies were created by the co-author of the book, Michael Drew, and they include some great stuff.
P.S. As a sort of guarantee, if you buy it on my recommendation (and for the record, I’ve purposely chosen NOT to get any kind of affiliate payment for this) and you don’t end up finding the book useful and important, let me know and I’ll paypal you a refund.
P.P.S. In case you didn’t catch my mention of it earlier, and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a business partner with Roy Williams and a friend of Michael Drew’s.
Instead, the majority of us decide based on context and self-image: what kind of person am I, and what should a person like that do in a situation like this.
And that’s what’s so great about the signage pictured on the left.
I took the photo with my phone after dropping my kids off at school the other day, just because the sign was so devastatingly effective. Honestly, how much more effective do you think that speed limit sign is at actually reducing unsafe driving speeds due to the added verbiage?
Forget percentages — I’d say it’s more effective by a matter of multiples! Like 2x or 3x more effective.
Why? Because it reframes how drivers interpret the sign, moving it from a governmental imposition that’s no big deal to flout to a community standard that would be bad manners to disregard.
How does it do all that?
By redefining the the speed limit as a “Neighborhood” speed Limit — i.e., a standard agreed upon by the local community — and by adding in the normative “Nice neighbors don’t speed.”
If you consider yourself a respectable, decent neighbor and you pass that signing going 30 mph, you feel like a heel, as if you were purposefully or carelessly endangering your neighbors’ kids and pets.
And so you slow down!
This does not often happen with just regular old stop signs.
The point is that marketers frequently fail to take this decision-making process into account, relying instead on pure self-interest, as embodied in the WIIFM acronym.
Marketers rarely consider HOW the prospect sees herself and how we can bring our desired action into alignment with her self image. We don’t emotioneer our persuasive messages. But we should…
The basics are not basic because they are easy, but because they are fundamental. And when it comes to Website optimization, the three fundamental questions pretty much never change:
- Who is coming to the site? How did they arrive? And what are their goals?
- What’s the next step forward for them both in terms of their goals and your conversion funnel?
- What do they need to understand, believe, and feel in order to confidently take those next steps
The beauty of these questions are that they help you understand WHY web visitors do what they do. Analytics can tell you what visitors are doing, but you’ll never really figure out WHY they’re doing it until you get a grasp on these questions.
I was reminded of this when looking at this week’s Which Test Won column. Now, I like Which Test Won, but my usual pet peave with their columns is that they often fail to give readers enough context around the tests and the user experience and clickstream in order to make a fully informed guess as to which of the two variants won.
At best you have to sort of make educated guesses regarding the three basic questions. Here’s an example:
The contest explanation/headline is: “Does Adding a ‘Refine Your Search’ Toolbar Help Clickthroughs on a Category Page with 99+ Products?” And then they just present you with the two pages, one with and one without the ‘refine your search’ toolbar. I’ve screenshot the images and pasted them below:
So… it sort of matters how people got to this page and what they’re shopping for, or if they are shopping vs. just getting information, and WHY they are shopping. But no one tells you this, so you’re sort of left to imagine or “make up” the visitor’s intentions/goals and path to this page. Here’s how I pictured it, based on the information provided in the breadcrumbs up at the top of the page:
- The visitors came to buy some sort of wood finish for a home improvement project, I’m guessing some kind of deck finish
- They came in from the home page, went to “Decorating,” selecting “Woodcare,”
- Finally clicking on “Cuprinol,” OR
- The visitor searched on “Cuprinol Wood Finish” (or similar) and this page represents the search results.
- Is it easier to refine by price or do you really just want to look and see what the price is? Probably the latter.
- Does it help to refine by brand? No, because you’ve already done that by specifying Cuprinol.
- What about refining by product type? Meh, what if you’re looking for a combination stain and preservative? Or maybe you want to see all your options?
- Might it help to refine by application? Yes, but would you even have seen that or would you already have dismissed the refining tool as useless by now?
Bryan Eisenberg Still Kicking CRO Butt w/ the 3 Questions
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:
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?
- Famous, working screenwriters have offered it up as sound practice
- The two most famous directors of our era, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, see Norman Rockwell as a kindred spirit and brother storyteller, and
- Spielberg specifically mentions the importance of ritual when discussing the influence of legendary director John Ford on his work: “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures. I grew up with John Ford movies and I know a lot about his work and have studied him. I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated rituals and traditions”
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:
So what about you? How are you harnessing into the power of ritual and story appeal with your ads?