Marketing Magic: Pulling a Habit Out of the Rat!
What is a magician? Someone who performs magic? No. Someone who perform tricks? Maybe. Someone who creates illusions? Yes! How do they create these illusions? Magicians are by far some of the best controllers of attention and awareness. Skilled magicians manipulate the focus and intensity of our attention. An experienced, talented magician can control, at any given instant, what you and I are aware of and what we’re not.
If you’d like to write copy that has people pulling out their wallets like they’re under a magic spell you’d be well advised to learn a thing or two about magic. Like writing copy, magic is not all hocus-pocus; it involves knowing what causes a human being to see what you want them to see at the moment you want them to see it, and to take action when you want them to take it.
Magicians use visual illusions and mental, or cognitive, illusions to make it appear that something magical has occurred. Let’s look at some of the things in a magician’s bag of tricks…
Some magicians use attractive, scantily clad assistants to help divert attention. Personally, I find beautiful women in skimpy, revealing clothing to be so repulsive that I could never be a magician… ok… I’m lying about that!
Visual illusions, on the surface, seem easy to understand, but it’s not always easy to understand why or how they work. Cognitive illusions, on the other hand, mask or alter our perception of what is actually occurring in front of us by manipulating attention, memory, and causal inference.
The Old One-Two…
Many magicians combine both visual and cognitive illusions into the same trick. Here’s an example that creates a two-step process. A magician proclaims that he’s going to turn his beautiful assistant’s tiny white dress red. He does much posturing and proclaiming while the stage lights are full bright white, focusing the audience’s attention on her dress, then at the climatic moment, the stage lights dim and then come back up all red. So, he has, in fact, turned the dress red, but it’s a pretty lame trick since he’s turned everything red. The audience groans and he laughs and admits his trick was pretty lame. He asks the audience to once again look at his assistant… he dims the lights once more and then… when the lights come back up in full bright white light, his assistant’s dress is now red for real.
The magician who performs this trick, The Great Tomsoni, knows that during the first part of the trick, the audience will have their eyes focused on his beautiful assistant in her tight white dress. The bright lights will burn an after image into their eyes that will last for a second or so. He also knows that the first step, the lame part of the trick, will disarm the audience causing most of them to stop looking for the “method” of the trick. Then, when the lights go down the second time, her white dress is rapidly ripped from her body by small cables below the stage revealing the red dress underneath – but, due to the afterimage from the red lights no one sees even the slightest movement. Then Bam! the white lights come back up and she’s wearing a red dress!
Misdirection: Overt or Covert?
Magicians call the art of attention manipulation “misdirection”. There are two types of misdirection: Overt and Covert.
Overt manipulation is the magician redirecting the audience’s gaze away from the trick, sometimes by nothing more complex than asking them to look at a particular object.
Covert manipulation is a more subtle technique. The magician draws the audience’s focus, attention, or suspicion away from the trick, but not necessarily by redirecting their gaze. Using properly executed covert misdirection the magician may have the audience looking directly at the method behind the trick, yet be completely oblivious to it.
When we’re writing a headline, banner ad, or copy, we want people to read it. How can we ever succeed in such a busy world? Magic tricks rely on two types of blindness, “Change Blindness” and “Inattentional Blindness”. Understanding these can offer clues to get your message seen.
Change Blindness is when a person fails to notice that something is different than it was just before.
Inattentional Blindness is when people fail to notice an unexpected object that is directly in front of them. In one study, people were asked to count how many times three basketball players passed the ball between them. While they were doing this, a person in a gorilla suit walked across the scene. Half of them failed to notice the gorilla! The gorilla even stopped to beat its chest at the center of the scene! There were no visual illusions or distractions; the counting was so absorbing that many subjects who were looking directly at the gorilla didn’t see it!
How can you expect your headline to be read if people don’t even notice a gorilla on a basketball court?
Representational Momentum: Now That We’ve Got You on a Roll…
In the “vanishing ball” trick, the magician tosses a ball straight up and catches it a few times in a row, then on the final toss he only pretends to throw the ball. He pretends to follow his imaginary thrown ball with his head and eyes: social clues that the audience follows hook, line, and sinker. The audience thinks that the ball was actually thrown and then magically vanished!
Why? What makes this trick work? Is it a visual illusion or a cognitive illusion? Researchers wanted to know too, and found that the direction of the observer’s gaze did not matter: the magician was tricking their brain, not their eyes. Their eye movements did not follow the imaginary ball, but rather the social clues from the magician (his head and eye movements following the imaginary ball) covertly manipulated the audience’s focus to the position where the ball supposedly vanished.
Illusory Correlation – Cause and Effect:
If event A always precedes event B, then our brains will jump to the conclusion that A must cause B. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it’s not. Magicians use this cognitive phenomenon to falsely relate two unrelated events.
Upon seeing a really great magic trick, who doesn’t try to figure out how it was accomplished? In fact, many if not most magicians encourage their audience to do this by showing them that a hat is empty before pulling a rabbit from the hat, or that an assistant’s dress is so tight that there’s no way a second red dress could be hidden underneath. But they don’t draw attention to the real method, only the illusory part of the trick. This makes reconstruction virtually impossible. But, the more the audience member tries and fails to discover how the magician pulled the trick off, the more believable it becomes, the more the magic seems real.
Some Real Hocus-Pocus…
As we saw in the representational momentum example of the vanishing ball trick, unspoken assumptions and implied information are extremely important to the perception of a trick and its subsequent attempted reconstruction. Magician James Randi has said that audience members more easily accept suggestions and unspoken information than direct assertions. For magic, this means that the audience member, when attempting to reconstruct the trick, will remember implied information as fact. For copywriters, it means telling compelling stories where the characters in the story, even if it’s you, relay the point you’re trying to make – this is also one reason why testimonials work so well.
Let me stress that as a copywriters we should not try to “trick” anyone. What we should do, and learn from these techniques, is to get, and keep someone’s attention focused on the message we want them to receive, and to get them to take whatever desired action, such as ordering, we want them to take. Understanding how our brains work is essential to successful magic as well as successful marketing.
Until next time,
P.S. Continued in part II “Choice Blindness and Justification“…