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:

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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:

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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:

  1. Idealist
  2. Civic

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 Generations

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:

  1. A Beautiful Dream of Freedom from Restraint
  2. A Hunger for Self Expression
  3. 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

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:

  1. A Beautiful Dream of Working Together for the Common Good
  2. A Hunger for Acceptance as a Member of a Team
  3. 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. 

Fact: most of our decisions aren’t made on a straight cost-benefit analysis.

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 speed limits.

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:

  1. Who is coming to the site? How did they arrive? And what are their goals?
  2. What’s the next step forward for them both in terms of their goals and your conversion funnel?
  3. 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.
Either way, you sort of have to assume that the visitor needs some sort of wood refinisher for an outdoor structure, like a deck or a shed, and that she has an already established bias in favor of the Curpinol brand.
NOW that you know this, it makes it easier to figure out whether the “Refine Your Search Tool” might help or if the visitor is already close enough to her goal to prefer browsing:
  • 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?
So which page would you guess works better?  The page with the pretty much useless refinement feature or the page that moves the most likely needed product — the decking protector — up above the fold, giving you encouragement to scroll down and see what’s available?
You guessed it, the page without the search refinement tool won. You can read the results here. But while you can get the results without going through my little mental simulation, you wouldn’t have a working hypothesis as to WHY the results are what they are without answering those three fundamental questions.

Bryan Eisenberg Still Kicking CRO Butt w/ the 3 Questions

And who did I learn those questions from?
Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg. And sure enough, they’re still at it, teaching the CRO community how it’s done with their recent Conversion Optimization 101 series.  And their most recent post is well worth reviewing in light of the three questions.
Here you can see a Facebook ad that Bryan clicked on while cruising through FB on his ipad:
And here you can see the landing page the ad brought him to:
 So let’s run through the questions:

Question #1:

Bryan got to this page from the Facebook Ad while browsing the web on his iPad. His “goal” is to take advantage of the free trial offer.  This means that the landing page should match the expectations created by the ad. Not just objectively, but subjectively.
But does it? Not really.  First, the ad is written in spanish, and the landing page is entirely in English.  Second, the headline presented within the frame of the image and within the “active window” mentions the $7.99 per month instead of a free 1-month trial. In fact, the Facebook Ad features “Free Trial” language in the ad image (in English instead of Spanish), the ad’s headline, AND the ad’s body copy.
So shouldn’t the landing pages red stripe with the Netflix header also say “Free Trial”?  Sure it should — it should match the Facebook ad as closely as possible in look and feel.
Yes, there is a “1 Month Free” call-out off to the side, but it’s off to the side, away from the hero shot and from the interactive elements on the page.
Also, shouldn’t an iPad browsing prospect be shown a landing page featuring a picture of a movie being watched on an iPad instead of on an iPhone?  This one is a bit nit-picky compared to the others, but for a company like Netflix, it’s well worth the added effort of proper targeting.

Question #2:

Bryan’s next step forward is to sign-up for the free trial.
So far so good, and the sign-up form is nice and simple. But why separate the sign-up form from the rest of the page by abruptly changing the color scheme?  And why make the form feel different than the ad through the choice of a different color scheme? This might have worked if signing up was logging in with your Facebook login, since the grey and blue echo Facebook’s own color scheme.
But these questions are small change compared to…

Question #3:

In order to move forward Bryan Eisenberg needs to understand what’s gong to happen next — what’ll happen after (and IF) he clicks the “Start Your Free Month” button?
So does the page explain this for Bryan?  Not at all.  He has no idea what happens after he fills out the form. Will he be taken to the main site to pick out his movies? Will he get an e-mail with a special link and coupon code?  Is this all he has to fill out, or will he need to add in his credit card info before he can start watching movies.
You can’t get a visitor confident in taking the next step unless he’s sure of what to expect, and this page fails to do that.
And this is what the 3 questions are all about — giving you insight that you simply won’t get from other approaches.  Why do I say this? Because on Bryan’s comment section for this post, lots of people have commented on the design, usability, and scent flaws of this landing page, but no one has bothered talking about the messaging around the last question.
And, frankly, it’s the messaging that usually holds the key to the biggest gains.
Bottom Line: Know the Fundamental Questions, Use the Fundamental Questions, and Never let up on the Three 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:

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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?

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?

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