WTF? 12 Principles of Psychological Disruption
How to be un-ignorable.
Fade in. A bustling city street, where PEOPLE pass by shops, billboards, and digital screens, all vying for attention.
Narrator (V.O.): In a world where time is limited and choices are infinite, the Marketplace stands as an omnipresent entity, constantly speaking, endlessly beckoning.
Cut to: JAMES, 30s, walking down the street, earbuds in, looking at his phone.
Marketplace (V.O., a deep, omnipresent voice): James…
James passes a HUGE billboard promoting a sale. He doesn’t notice.
Marketplace: Look up.
Cut to: James entering a cafe. There’s a flyer by the entrance promoting a new coffee flavor. He ignores it.
Marketplace: Try something new, James.
Cut to: James on a park bench. He scrolls past several ads on his phone.
Marketplace (growing desperate): I know you see them. I’m everywhere, offering everything. Why won’t you listen?
James continues scrolling, then suddenly stops. He looks intrigued. Something has caught his attention, but we can’t see what it is. James reaches for his wallet.
Marketplace (whispering): Gotcha.
12 Ways to Disrupt Someone’s Day
Every day, you and I are bombarded with countless messages, advertisements, and notifications. The challenge for marketers and advertisers isn’t just to be seen and heard, but to even be noticed in the first place.
Standing out amidst the noise requires more than just a flashy design or a catchy slogan. We need to be surprising, unexpected, and original.
In short, we’re in the business of psychological disruption.
To disrupt is to break the continuity or uniformity of an ongoing process or state, and in the context of advertising, it means jolting the consumer out of their passive observation into active engagement. Your prospects are in an ongoing process of tuning you out. They want to go about their days without interruption, and we’re in the business of providing those unwanted interruptions.
Simply put, marketing is about grabbing someone’s attention and holding their interest when they’d rather ignore you. It’s the art of making them go, WTF? and then wanting to learn more.
12. The Unexpected Twist
Use the element of surprise. Unexpected shifts in narrative or visual elements can catch viewers off guard, prompting them to engage more deeply to understand the deviation.
A great shortcut for identifying opportunities for surprise is to write down all the aspects of your ad that follow reason and logic, and then simply writing down their exact opposites. It won’t always work, but it works a (pun intended) surprising amount of the time.
Ad calls for a mother nursing her child. This naturally conjures up a number of stereotypical pictures of motherhood, such as the mid-30s professional who’s somehow able to balance it all. Stereotypes aren’t interesting though, because we expect them. So: what if the mom in question was a young goth woman nursing in the middle of a high-society function?
Ad calls for a family having dinner. What if that family was dressed to the nines, conveying affluence and class, but are dining in the middle of a busy fast food joint?
Ad calls for a car driving fast down the freeway, aggressively cutting in and out of various lanes. But what if the car was driverless? Or what if the car is actually a go-kart?
None of these are what I would call genius, but each one would be surprising, and would disrupt the thinking pattern of the viewer, if only for a moment. They’re the proverbial foot in the door.
11. Challenge Assumptions
Make your audience question their existing beliefs or viewpoints. This cognitive dissonance encourages them to engage with your content to resolve the tension.
You’re selling life insurance, and a common belief of your audience is that it’s a big expense that will never benefit you until you’re dead, meaning it will never benefit you personally. Flip this on its head by talking about specific benefits the customer would get to enjoy immediately. “Knowing my family will be financially secure in the future gives me the confidence to invest in enjoying life today,” as the speaker zooms off on a Sea-Doo.
You’re a realtor and a common reason for people not to buy is that they believe it’s a seller’s market, i.e. that prices are overly inflated. Flip this on its head and show the financial consequences of delay. “Joanne bought her house in 2007, just before the housing market ‘crashed’. Everyone told her that her timing was awful. That she should have waited for a return to a buyer’s market. Today, the equity she owns in her home is worth twice what she paid 16 years ago, and she’s heading towards an early retirement.”
10. Interactive Engagement
Encourage active participation. Interactive content or campaigns can make the consumer feel like they are part of the story, increasing investment and recall.
What if your print ad was a literal cross-word puzzle, with the clues and answers all pointing to reasons to buy from you? Readers who play along won’t soon forget about the product they spent 10 minutes puzzling about.
What if your digital ad was actually a quiz that helped the customer to know themselves better at the same time as you got to know them? If you do it right, by the end of the quiz, you’ll have planted enough seeds for them to at least be curious about your product.
What if customers needed to solve a puzzle to unlock your coupon code? Now your coupon is a reward to be used right away.
9. Visual Stimulation
Use bold, contrasting visuals. Our brains are wired to notice things that stand out.
Doing this requires a strong grasp of the context in which your ad will be received.
You’re designing a storefront poster, and the store is in a busy mall. Taking a walk through the mall, you see an abundance of posters of happy groups of people using products. So instead, you choose to simply show a photo of the product on a flat background.
You’re designing an in-store display. Taking a walk through the store, you see most product displays just show the product and list some features and benefits. So instead, you focus on lively imagery of people enjoying the benefits of the products. In fact, you don’t even show the product, but simply the joyous result of its use.
You’re writing a YouTube pre-roll 15 second ad. Watching competing ads, you see they’re very energetic and loud, in an attempt to grab the viewer’s attention. Instead, you feature a silent person staring at the camera. “This moment of awkward silence is brought to you by XYZ Corp.”
8. Unique Value Proposition
Make them an offer they can’t refuse. If you provide a unique benefit or solution that they can’t get elsewhere, they’re more likely to pay attention.
You run a consulting firm. Most consultants are pretty vague in what they say about themselves. So you run an more specific ad: “One Hour Consultation. A Lifetime of Pain Avoided.”
You’re a mechanic. You know a big fear people have is of being taken advantage of. To emphasize how transparent you are, you start a YouTube channel where you explain, in plain english, the most common car problems that you see, what the solutions are, and how to avoid them in the first place. People come to see that you don’t talk over their heads or make them feel stupid, and they learn to trust you. Your tagline: “A mechanic who speaks English,” or something to that effect.
7. Curiosity Gap
Provide just enough information to pique interest, but leave out key details. This gap spurs the desire to seek out more information.
This one is used heavily by storytellers, particularly in TV and film. Just jump straight into the action. Instead of showing how a problem came about, jump right into the problem. Let the viewer fill in the gap.
You run an emergency cleanup and restoration company. You decide to run a print ad showing a before and after of a home that was severely damaged in a fire: “Before the fire. After the fire.” The catch: The photos are the same.
You run a restaurant that’s meant to be welcoming to everyone, from all walks of life. You decide to run an ad showing a literal angel and a literal demon, sharing a plate of appetizers. Tagline: “Come together.”
6. Sensory Overload
Engage multiple senses. Using immersive experiences that appeal to sight, sound, touch, or even smell can create a more captivating and memorable experience.
You run the local newspaper, and your USP is that your offer clarity and understanding in a world of noise. So you run an ad with dozens of voices speaking at the same loud volume as information flies by, but in the centre of the screen, unmoving and serene, is your newspaper. In print, on a phone, on a laptop, on a tablet. Always centred and calm in the middle of a sea of chaos. Tagline: “More signal. Less noise.”
You run the local public library. You don’t have a budget for advertising, but you use the tools at your disposal to create an ASMR video to post on social media. The sound and visual of pages being turned; pencil being applied to paper; books being taken and returned on the shelf; etc. “Your public library, offering room to think since [year the library opened].”
5. Relatability and Personalization
Make it about them. Tailor your message to the individual, making them feel seen and understood.
This one has seen a boom from data-driven marketers, but you don’t need to be a creep who spies on everything your customer does.
When I worked at Twist Image, we had an award-winning email campaign for Telus. The secret sauce was simply that the imagery, message, and offers were all reflective of the customer’s actual phone and phone plan. We simply showed their phone and made offers that applied to them. It made the emails extremely relevant to the customer. This is very common today, but was revolutionary at the time.
You’re a plastic surgeon, and a common fear that people have is that they won’t look like themselves anymore. So you run an ad that simply compares photos of people post-operation to how they looked when they were younger. Tagline: “Remember the you that you were born to be.”
4. Simplicity and Clarity
Sometimes, less is more. A clear and concise message can cut through the clutter and resonate more strongly than a complex one.
For the sake if disruption, this one works best when everyone else is being loud or long-winded.
You run a thrift store. Your main selling point isn’t the quality of your merchandise or the breadth of your offerings. It’s the incredibly low prices. So you run a series of ads featuring various “makeovers”: A kid dressed for back to school; a new remodelled kitchen; a backyard oasis. The copy is simply lines pointing to each item in the makeover, with a price for what the item cost. “You don’t need to start over to get a fresh start.”
You run a car dealership. Interest rates have dropped to their lowest levels in, say, 15 years. So you update your road-side signage to simply say: “0.99% OAC, the lowest rate since 2008.” You can’t always make this kind of claim, so when the opportunity presents itself, it’s important to present this information with as little distraction as possible.
3. Cultural Relevance
Tap into current events, trends, and pop culture. This one isn’t for the feint heart, as there are two big risks:
It requires that you be quick in your execution, because what’s timely doesn’t remain timely for very long. There are few things worse than missing the cultural moment. It makes you feel out-of-touch rather than relevant.
It’s always possible that dozens or even hundreds of other brands have the same idea, and you’re all executing at the same time without realizing it, rendering your work into an instant cliché. We see this all the time on branded social media.
That said, there are times when it works really really well.
In February 2013, during the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl XLVII, a power outage resulted in some of the lights going out for a little more than half an hour. Oreo capitalized on the moment by tweeting that you can “still dunk in the dark.” Perfectly played, perfectly timed. There was no way to plan for this moment, but it was executed exceedingly well.
In 2018, as Colin Kaepernick gained world attention by taking a knee during the national anthem, Nike ran an ad with him in it and headline:
“Believe in something, even it means sacrificing everything.” In sentiment, this echoed their tagline, “Just do it.” Both imply that there is something more important than your excuses.
Again, these are impossible to plan for, and if you set out to do this type of marketing, you’re likely to miss the ball. But keep an eye out for key opportunities, and be prepared to jump when they present themselves.
2. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
Instill a sense of urgency. Make them feel like they’re missing out on something big if they don’t engage now.
This is the oldest trick in the marketing book, and plays on one key fact: When we’re filtering out the noise in the world, one of the things our brains look out for is signs that if we don’t pay attention RIGHT NOW, we’re going to miss out. It’s easy to dismiss messages when we feel we can come back to them any time we like. But when we feel like the opportunity is temporary, we’re forced to pay attention to decide if it’s something we even care about.
Limited time offers. “50% off – today only!”
Countdown timers. “Only 3 hours left to get yours.”
Out-of-stick notices. “Only 2 left in stock!”
Member exclusives. “Available for members only.”
Early access. “Sign up now to get yours first.”
Waiting lists. “Pre-order today to get it in time for Christmas.”
Social proof to show high demand on limited inventory. “500 people purchased today. Almost sold out!”
Limited edition products.
1. Emotionally Charged Content
Elicit strong emotional responses, be it humour, sadness, shock, or joy. Emotions build recall, and we can only buy the things we remember.
The default emotional response to any ad is apathy. Your job is to make the audience feel literally anything else.
I’m a fan of taking this to the extreme. In an ideal world, the work would make you laugh, cry, or punch a wall. You should feel something deeply. The feeling should last. You should still be stewing about it days later.
Apple’s Misunderstood (2013): This ad features a teenager seemingly engrossed in his phone during a family Christmas gathering. However, it’s revealed he’s been capturing heartwarming moments, creating a surprise video gift for his family. The ad touches on themes of family, togetherness, and misunderstandings.
Google’s Parisian Love (2010): Using only Google search queries, this ad tells the love story of an American meeting a French woman in Paris, settling down, and starting a family. It evokes feelings of romance, adventure, and new beginnings.
Budweiser’s Puppy Love (2014): This Super Bowl ad tells the story of a friendship between a puppy and a Clydesdale horse, emphasizing loyalty, friendship, and determination.
Thai Life Insurance’s Unsung Hero (2014): The ad follows a man’s daily acts of kindness without expecting anything in return. By the end, his gestures create ripples of positivity, underlining selflessness and the impact of small deeds.
P&G’s Thank You, Mom Campaign (2012): This series, timed with the Olympics, celebrates the sacrifices mothers make for their children. It’s a tribute to maternal love and dedication.
The Ultimate Trick: Just Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention To
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to start noticing the things you notice. If you looked at an ad, why? What caught your attention about it? What can you learn from that?
Was it the imagery? The playful use of copy? The contrast between the imagery and the copy? Was it the audio? Was it the promised benefit? Did it touch on something near and dear to your heart? Did it surprise you? Did it tell you something you didn’t know?
In many ways, this is job #1 as an insurgent marketer: Pay attention. Every discovery in marketing came about because someone noticed that something caught their attention, got them to engage with the ad, changed their mind about something, and ultimately got them to buy.
This is not an easy thing to do, because all people, yourself and I included, are wired to pretend nothing influences us at all. We don’t like to believe that others have any impact on our actions and decisions.
You need to recognize how you’re being influenced every day, so that you can learn how to better influence others. The more you think you’re a unique snowflake, impervious to influence, the more susceptible to influence you become. Non-marketers can afford to pretend that marketing doesn’t work on them. Your job is accept that it does, and to understand how, so that you can make use of those techniques as well.
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