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March 28, 2007
The Ol’ Zeigarnik Effect: in Defense of Long-Form Copy
 

The Zeigarnik Effect is said to be the most powerful tool of direct response marketing, advertising engineered to elicit an immediate response. Direct response techniques are employed in infomercials; bulk emails; letters sent to your home asking you to send a check right now; and ads in the back of vertical pubs like golf magazines, where they sell a video of a one-legged golfer whose proprietary swing will ad 50 yards to your drive.

Direct response employs unabashed persuasion. Carl Rove began his career in direct response and applies the techniques of direct response to his political strategies.

I asked persuasion expert Blair Warren to teach me The Zeigarnik Effect. Blair said, “Ben, people will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions and help them throw rocks at their enemies.” I asked if that was the essence of The Zeigarnik Effect. He said it was the antithesis of The Zeigarnik Effect. That stumped me. I asked what the opposite of people doing anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions and help them throw rocks at their enemies was. He didn’t answer.

“Ben, you should know this. You grew up as a kid magician. What was it like when you bought a magic trick from the magic store?” I told him I had bought a 9-inch silk hanky just last week. “No, Ben. I’m not asking about a prop for magic, I’m talking about buying a magic trick, purchasing a magic trick that had you fooled and you had to buy the trick to learn the secret.” I had to think about that for a while. It had been a long while since I bought a magic trick to learn the secret. Then, it dawned on me. The last magic trick I purchased was The Invisible Deck.

Blair asked me about the experience. I told him that the magic store employee had asked me to shuffle an invisible deck of cards and to remove a card and place it up-side-down in the deck. He then pretended to meld the invisible deck with a real deck and my card was up-side-down in his deck. “Ben, what happened after you purchased the trick?” Well, I ripped open the instructions and was extraordinarily disappointed how simple the trick actually was.

“Did you ever buy a magic trick and wait, say, a day or two, before reading how the trick was done?” Never. “Why not?” I couldn’t wait. “Why not?” I needed to know how the trick was done. I wanted to be able to do the same trick. I wanted to be amazing. “Was buying the magic trick a form of the magic store encouraging your dreams?” Yes. Is that the essence of The Zeigarnik Effect, to encourage somebody’s dreams? “No.” What then? “Human nature — even the most extreme examples of persuasion such as suicide cults and mass movements — is based on the most basic of human desires. Just as magicians can perform miracles using mundane principles, powerful persuaders shape the world in much the same way.”

Are you saying the world is controlled by secret ultra-powerful magicians? “Ben. You sound paranoid when you talk like that. No, I’m not saying that. I am saying that people who have something to gain will often employ whatever they can to get what they want.” Blair, isn’t that the same thing? “No. Magic implies that there is some supernatural power employed. The Zeigarnik Effect simply exploits a basic drive of human nature.”

I asked him if he was going to teach me The Zeigarnick Effect or not. “Ben, I’m trying to prepare you. Like the magic tricks you have paid for in the past, the secret will be disappointing.” Then disappoint me already.

My dear reader, human beings have a need to know. The Zeigarnik Effect demonstrates that people are motivated by incomplete information. At the next party you’re at, halfway through the party, walk past a girl and say to her, “I overheard half of your conversation earlier and I really agreed with what you were saying.” Dollars-to-doughnuts says she’ll break away from that group and come ask you what you heard her say earlier. She’ll be dying to know.

The process of building suspense, of dividing information, increases the audience’s titillation and makes them more likely to buy or take whatever action they are directed, or at least to give you more of their attention than they would have otherwise. This technique can only be used in long copy.


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Ben Mack is a sales and marketing expert and author. Winner of AMA’s Edison award and EFFIE, Mack is a career ad-man. He has worked on a number of high-profile ad campaigns like Cingular, Mitsubishi and Publix with such ad agencies as Deutsch, J. Walter Thompson, WONGDOODY, BBDO, and WestWayne.


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