The Awesome Narrative Goes Viral

From John Tierney, writing in the NY Times today about which stories in that newspaper get emailed the most:

The results are surprising — well, to me, anyway. I would have hypothesized that there are two basic strategies for making the most-e-mailed list. One, which I’ve happily employed, is to write anything about sex. The other, which I’m still working on, is to write an article headlined: “How Your Pet’s Diet Threatens Your Marriage, and Why It’s Bush’s Fault.” 

Surprising articles, like one about free-range chickens on the streets of New York, were also more likely to be e-mailed — which was a hardly a surprising discovery, of course. But the researchers also kept finding popular articles with a quality that went beyond surprise.

“If I went into my classroom dressed up like a pirate, that would be surprising, but it wouldn’t be awe-inspiring,” Dr. Berger said. “An article about square watermelons is surprising, but it doesn’t inspire that awed feeling that the world is a broad place and I’m so small.”

Building on prior research, the Penn researchers defined the quality as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.”
They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires “mental accommodation” by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.

“It involves the opening and broadening of the mind,” write Dr. Berger and Dr. Milkman, who is a behavioral economist at Wharton. [emphasis added]

It's probably safe to say that this also applies to advertising copy and brand narratives, wouldn't you agree?

So, all you advertising copywriters and clients out there. It's time to stop accommodating your fears by writing boring headlines and relying on brand narratives that just "do the job." Aim for transcendence.

Not the easiest task, I know, given some of the things we are asked to advertise. However, my agency has made jet engine leasing and agricultural financing as "transcendent" as possible, and is absolutely chomping at the bit of "greater self" for the waterless urinal prospect we're pitching, so it can be done.

Given the otherworldly reward of your awesome narrative going viral, it's certainly worth a try.


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