Channeling Hitchcock

If it’s true that we constantly make inferences about the world around us (as in “He said x and y, so he must be thinking z.”) and if it’s true that these inferences feed the narratives that can make ad campaigns meaningful, then how can we — as marketers — elicit the most powerful stories?
An extension of the mind’s ability to tie random bits into connected wholes is its tendency to create intensely personal reactions from projected hopes and fears. That strange sound in a dark alley? That wink from across a crowded bar? Who needs the details; we’ll happily provide them as we internally invent what we want (or don’t want) to infer — and then self edit them into stories — from those triggers and clues.
Great thrillers hinge on tapping that inner editor. Alfred Hitchcock, of course, was the master at making audiences react viscerally rather than rationally. So do late night, get-rich-quick infomercials and Ponzi schemes. There is apparently nothing more interesting to us than knowing something important is (presumably) happening and, despite not knowing fully what it is, going along for the ride. Comedian Jack Benny was known for taking advantage of this human tendency. “You laughed at what Jack was thinking,” claims a recent PBS documentary, “not at what he was doing.”
But is it what he was thinking, or is it what we were thinking when we watched him? Aren’t we doing the work in that case; aren’t we, again, editing the story?
The “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was meaningful for this reason as well. Instead of showing casinos, pools and showgirls in the ads, we took Vegas “product” out of the picture. The content for each ad was really provided by the person viewing it.
 
When a group of female friends are shown cruising down the strip in a limo, laughing at the veiled bachelorette among them, you are likely to conjure up what she did to make her friends laugh when you watch the spot. It’s probably something you’ve done, would like to do, or something you are afraid of doing and you have internally edited the spot to your orientation — it’s become about you.
So why does this matter to marketers and media executives? Isn’t this something that only creatives can use?

Media agencies, now more than ever, can also take advantage of the “Hitchcock Strategy.” We aren’t just about reach and frequency anymore. Media partners are now scripting the behavior of brands and are therefore central to a brand’s story. How a brand talks to you (Does it yell? Does it whisper?), when a brand talks to you, whether it talks at or with you … these are all dimensions of a brand’s behavior.
Who a brand spends its time with (who it partners with) and where it talks to you (where you encounter a brand’s message) are the most conspicuous aspects of brand behavior and the most amenable to the Hitchcock Strategy.
If your media strategy is something like “reach target in contexts where they are likely to be engaged in self-reflection,” for example, it can inform your daypart strategy (early morning, when people are thinking about the day ahead), it can inform your channel strategy (using radio to reach people during their commute) and it can inform your selection of media venues (match.com, monster.com, news channels and other self-reflection-rich environments).
Let’s assume this “self-reflection” approach were adopted for an anti-smoking campaign. Rather than merely remind smokers about the health risks associated with their habit (they’re well aware of those), this approach would help you take advantage of smokers’ own powerful self-projections when you communicate with them (via their own inferences about their future health, thoughts about freedom from an expensive and cumbersome habit, etc.). Smokers on the receiving end of the message would be bringing their own meaningful associations to their interaction with the ad.