May 08, 2014

Advertising And Algebra

When my daughter was five years old -- before she could add or subtract -- I taught her algebra.

One day we were in the car. She must have heard some kids talking about it in kindergarten or heard some reference to it on Sesame Street because she suddenly asked me, "Dad, what's algebra?"

"I'll tell you in a minute," I said. "First I want to ask you a question. That cookie you're eating cost a dollar. How much would two cookies cost?"

She thought for a second, "I don't know...two dollars?"

"Right," I said. "How much would three cookies cost?"

"Three dollars?" she answered.

"Right," I said. "How much would ten cookies cost?" I asked.

"Ten dollars?"

"Bingo," I said.

"How much would a thousand cookies cost?"

"A thousand dollars!"

"You just learned algebra," I told her.

There's a concept in learning theory about "closing the circle." Closing the circle means taking the student almost fully around the idea, but leaving a gap for the student to fill in an insight or an answer.

The hypothesis is that if the student has to fill in the final gap, there will be a much greater chance that something will be learned rather than just heard.

This principle ought to be applied more liberally in advertising. We are always trying to force-feed a conclusion on consumers, when having the consumer draw her own conclusion would be a lot more effective.

I am convinced that advertising that is constructed in such a way as to make a case but leave the final logical leap to the viewer is more powerful.

This is not just true in advertising strategy, it is also true in execution. As Vinny Warren points out in this wonderful post, viewer attention can be enhanced by entering scenes late and leaving early. Not only is it better filmcraft, it requires the viewer to close the loop.

By the way, 13 years later that girl scored in the 96th percentile on her math SATs. Not that I'm the kind of parent who would brag about such things...


Josh Anderson said...

Ernst Lubitsch said "Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever."

I struggle to understand why people ignore/forget gems like this. Do you think it's because we confuse "simple" with "facile"?

Or is it just a symptom of your "The dumbest person ever is the last guy who held this job" formula?

Jim Powell said...

Or advertising could just make people cry.!

Doug Garnett said...

So many traditional ad folks point to that crass yell & sell direct response television and complain that it treats people like children.

It does. Except, so does all their far more creatively acceptable, but still consumer offensive, advertising.

My advice is always: Know that the consumer is not an expert in your product category (or interpreting strangely abstract performance art masquerading as advertising).

But always assume the consumer is an expert in their own life - quite competent at weighing options and making choices.

Stephen Eichenbaum said...

I'm sure your chat in the car was responsible for your daughter's high math test scores. Is that the goddam circle i'm supposed to close?

TCWriter said...

This is exactly why the "Minnesota School" print advertising of the 80s and 90s was so compelling -- when Tom McElligott (or Luke Sullivan, or any of the great copywriters of that era) wrote a headline, they typically left it to the reader to bounce the text off the visual (close the circle).

I have seen nothing like it in the digital era.