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?

by Jeff

I have guest posted over at Web Marketing Today for a while now, but the Website itself has recently undergone a redesign as well as a slight editorial change with regards to my posts.  While the focus on Web Marketing for small to medium-sized businesses remains the same, my  posts are now focused on:

  1. Website Improvement for Service-Based Businesses
  2. Content Marketing for Service-Based Businesses

I’m excited about this because SMB Service Providers are a largely underserved market when it comes to Web Marketing.  Most examples focus on either etailers or enterprise-sized B2B service providers.

Yet, a majority of what my Wizard Partners call “Main Street Businesses” are either service providers (think HVAC, carpeting, contractors, printers, advertisers, Web designers, accountants, consultants etc.) or are retailers who manage to stay profitable and, frankly, relevant to the customer based on their ability to provide services around the sale (most niche or specialty stores & boutiques). So this is an extremely important market to serve and speak to, and I feel uniquely privileged to be able to do so.

If you’re interested in this kind of content, you can find all my Web Marketing Today posts here.  A recent one that I think many of you would like is this post on 5 Sales-Generating Photos for Service Websites.

At any rate, I hope you  like what you find, and please let me know if there is anything that you’d like me to cover in future articles.

by Jeff

Did you know that there are 12 kinds of Ads?

Granted, this model is geared towards TV ads, but, yes, according to Donald Gunn, a former creative director at the legendary Leo Burnett agency, there are only 12 kinds of ads.

I’m not going to go into them here, since you can read all about Gunn’s categories over at, but I am going to give you an alternate framework for thinking about ads.

So what’s the framework?

It’s the same Framework that’s been made famous — or, at least more famous — by its mention by the Heath Brothers in the opening chapters of their justly famous book, Made to Stick, wherein they mention an Israeli research paper, “The Fundamental Templates of Quality Ads.”  According to the published research, 89% of award winning ads could be classified into 6 basic templates.

More importantly, providing amateurs with just 2 hours of training on the use of these templates boosted their abilities to produce ads that positively affected audience perception of the advertised products by 55%

And now I’m going to break those templates down for you 🙂

Just keep in mind that, again, these templates were discovered while researching award winning ads, not necessarily sales increasing and market-share winning ads. But for what it’s worth, here are the templates, complete with handy-dandy examples:

Template 1: Pictorial Analogy

In technical terms, this type of ad creates a dramatic situation and then makes a substitution between the product and another item with symbolic significance in order to illustrate the value or worth of the product.  The idea is to create an unexpected or surprising explanation of the value of the product through visual metaphor.

If that’s hard to follow, just look at the nike example to the right.

In the ad you are introduced into a dramatic situation of having to jump from a burning building only to find that the firefighters’ safety net/trampoline — an item with huge symbolic value — has been swapped for a nike air shoe.

This pictorial analogy creatively illustrates the protective and cushioning function of Nike Air technology and is reinforced by the ad copy which calls the air technology, “Something soft between you and the pavement.”

 Template 2: Extreme Situation

This template shows a product performing beyond the limits of normal use in order to exaggerate a key attribute or worth.

This may seem similar to the pictorial analogy, but it’s different because it requires no use of symbolism or analogy — it’s more straightforward in it’s extremity.  The cleve outdoor ad for the superglue isn’t trying to make a visual pun, it’s just showing the glue used in an exaggerated extreme.

The same can be said for this ad for WMF knives:








Template 3: Extreme Consequences

This template shows the exaggerated results of either using the product or the exaggerated consequences of not using it.  This listerine ad shows the extreme consequences of NOT using their mouthwash.

While this ad for Wonderbra indirectly shows an extreme consequence from using their product:

Template 4: Competition

As the name indicates, this template shows the product in direct comparison with either competing products or exaggerated alternatives. This Verizon ad is about as straightforward a competition ad as you can get:

While this Land Rover ad is a bit more indirect, both in its execution and in what it sees as the product’s real competition : )

Template 5: Interactive Experiment

Yes, boys and girls, non-internet ads can be interactive. And, no, that doesn’t require the use of QR codes and such. Just take a look at this great ad for DHL:

Template 6: Dimensionality Alteration

This is where you show some attribute of the product or service by altering the environment.  A classic example is this old-school headline for a faster cruise ship:

“Starting next tuesday, the Atlantic ocean becomes only one-fifth as long”

But my favorite example of this isn’t an ad at all, but a quote from Billy Wilders immortal, Sunset Boulevard:

“You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures; you used to be big”

“I still am big — it’s the pictures that got small.”

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Here’s what it looks like in a print ad that compresses time to show consequences:


And that’s a quick and dirty break-down of the ad templates.  Hope you find ’em useful.

P.S. if you’re interested, most of these 6 categories include sub-categories, that you can read about in the original research.  But for those too lazy to do that, here’s a quick and dirty chart showing all the sub-categories:

 “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.


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