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?
That means take the dramatic focal point or purpose of a given scene, and move the “cut” or “fade in” — the entrance — as close to that point as possible. Eliminate the preamble.
Then, exit the scene as soon as you’ve accomplished the dramatic moment. Don’t tie up the lose ends and don’t spell out the ramifications. Let the audience fill in the gaps between one scene and the next.
This emphasizes the drama by cutting out the “boring bits.” And it works. But almost no one ever mentions the importance of ritual to this process.
Because a ritual is a defined process, one can enter into the middle of one and have perfect orientation around what’s going on — what happened before entering the scene and what to expect next. Expectations that can then be harnessed for suspense and/or subverted for surprise.
And ritual offers the same help for leaving a scene early: the audience already knows how the ritual is supposed to end. So the writer doesn’t have to show you, or he can highlight the dramatic departure from the ordinary by foregrounding how the ending differs from expectation. Brides are supposed to walk out of the church married to the man they met at the altar, so running away from the altar with a crazy man that showed up halfway through the ceremony (like in the graduate) is pretty dramatic.
Here’s a great video example of John August editing a newbies script and applying exactly this principle:
The ritual, in this case, is checking into a hotel. We’ve all done it, we know how that ritual starts and ends — so why show all of it?
For advertisers, entering a ritual late and leaving it early lets you squeeze more story into less air time. Like this Clorox ad:
The entire ad is built around a ritual that is then subverted to make a point. And that would be cool enough if it was just a typical 30-second ad, but if you look at the timeline on the video, it’s actually a 15-second spot. Clorox compressed the ad into half the typical timeframe, allowing them to combine two of these style ads — two full story arcs — into a 30-second ad-space.
Enter Late and Leave Early Through Ritual!
I’m a fan of explanatory videos for several reasons:
- High engagement (for at least the first 20 — 60 seconds). In a TL;DR world a well placed video will hold a visitor’s full attention for at least 20 seconds.
- Multi-media. You’ve got moving pictures, words, music, and sound effects all working to convey information and create emotion.
- Emotion & Impact. Nothing beats video when it comes to high-impact demos and/or conveying passion, enthusiasm and sincerity.
Unfortunately, very few explanatory videos take full advantage of these strengths.
- Many waste their high-engagement window with too much unadorned exposition and preamble.
- Most over-use the “say-it, show it” technique and under-use visual storytelling techniques to point where they become nothing more than poorly illustrated radio ads.
- And more than a few tend to overplay the cartoon-y animation in ways that undermine effective emotional impact
But Salesforce knocked their video on Cloud Computing out of the park. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now:
Granted, the video could jump to the point even faster than it does, but even still, the central meat of the message starts after 15 seconds — within the 20 second window of engagement. Moreover, the fast-moving animation easily keeps viewers’ attention until then. And after that, the video just keeps getting better.
Here are some specific aspects of the video that are worth noting, copying, and demanding from your explanatorry video, should you decide to get one:
1. The video counterpoints less-emotional words with more emotional imagery
For example, at the 40 second mark, the audio says “you call technical support, and they don’t know, so they blame someone else.” But the imagery shows the tech support guy lounging in a chair with his feet up, laughing at the customers predicament while mindlessly throwing darts. The neutral audio combines with the cutting video to create a messaging impact that’s greater than either one alone. Nice.
Another great example occurs when one stick figure “sticks up” a customer stand-in, firing a pistol that unfurls into a microsoft flag — all while the announcer says, ”…the way you pay for cloud apps is also different.” Well played, Salesforce. Well played : )
2. The animation enhances the emotional impact of the messaging rather than undermining it
At the 44 second mark, the video shows a rather unstable-looking stack of software, which topples when one of the software boxes get’s swapped out forr an upgrade. The toppling of the boxes is meant to represent and dramatize a serious real-world problem.
A less-effective video would show the stack crashing straight to one side or another, without employing any depth cueus. In cinematic terms, they’d use flat staging, more suitable to comedy than drama. Worse, they’d probably make the crash cartoony in a way that would belittle the real-world consequences supposedly represented by the animation.
In the Salesforce video, on the other hand, they show the stack crashing towards the camera/viewer, using depth staging and serious sound effects to enhance the dramatic effect of the crash. And it works, because the producers of the video knew their craft as visual storytellers.
You can see this same depth staging when the “hairball” crushes the small business two. The scene is shot at an angle, looking up at the advancing hairball, rather than shown flat.
Remember: videos should use serious staging and serious sound effects for serious subject matter.
3. The video builds upon visual symbols from one scene to the next
The Salesforce video emphasizes the mess of a software crash by creating a giant hairball of IT difficulty/failure around the toppled software stack at the 50 second mark. Then that same hairball crushes a small business under the weight of IT difficulties 10 seconds later, while the audio track says, “small businesses don’t stand a chance.” Great pairing of visual storytelling and symbolism (IT failure will kill your small business) with explanatory audio.
Later the video will also contrast the wobbly software stack displayed at the video’s 44 second mark with a nice, super-stable, cloud-supported stack of cloud-based apps showcased at the 2:40 mark.
4. The Video Makes Effective Use of Reality Hooks and Analogies
When the Salesforce video compares gmail with Microsoft Exchange, a light goes on. Anyone with the slightest gMail experience knows that it truly delivers on Apple’s claimed promise of “It just works.” gMail might not have the best interface in the world, but it does work uber-reliably, with no technical fiddling required on the part of the user.
So what better way to drive home the advantages of cloud-based computing over reguar, enterprise level software than bringing it to the level of immediate, shared experience. The ability to bring the benefits of cloud-based apps home to the viewer, serves not only as an explanatory analogy, but as a persuasive “reality hook.”
5. The video’s strongest and boldest claims are followed by a genuine “Here’s why” sequence
Starting at the 1:50 mark and running all the way till 2:10, the Salesforce video makes several bold claims about cloud-based apps: that you can be up and running in a few days, that their apps cost less, are more scalable and secure and reliable than regular software. Then, they give a nice reason-why explanation for those claims.
Right at the 2:10 mark the video launches into an explanation of multi-tenancy, comparing it to renting space in an office building (rather than paying for the whole building yourself). Strong, Relevant Claims + Credible Proof = Persuasion. The salesforce video gets this in a way that a lot of explanatory videos don’t.
6. The video uses music to its advantage
The Bottom Line
If you’re planning on creating an explanatory video for your business or start-up, it’s well worth the time to watch a bunch of them from different providers. Watch them with the sound off. Watch them with the sound on but the video covered up. Now ask yourself:
- Which ones make full use of visual storytelling?
- Which make effective use of music?
- Which take too darn long to get to the point?
- And which ones actual achieve both clarity and credibility regarding the products claimed benefits?
What you’ll probably find is that great explanatory videos require a strongly persuasive script AND strong visual storytelling. Just make sure you’re getting both parts of that equation into your video…
P.S. There are a lot of solid explanatory videos out there and I’ll be reviewing more in the coming weeks, so if you’ve got a favorite you’d like analyzed, link to it in the comments.
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
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.
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…
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.