Inception Marketing 4

Leo knows that the subconscious controls decision making.

In Inception, the protagonists seek to use high technology to manipulate the subconscious minds of their targets by creating believable dreams.

Internet marketers lack the invasive and advanced ability to actually invade someone’s brain yet, but the film illustrates a basic concept of marketing as old as modern commerce itself.

The main subplot centers around a single, seemingly intractable problem: they have to implant an idea in their target’s head, but if the inception team is too didactic about it, the idea won’t take. Unless the target believes that they made the decision themselves, the entire operation will be a failure.

When planning a marketing campaign, the first principle that you must accept is that it’s impossible to change the behavior of others. There’s no combination of magic words and images that will induce customers to bend to your will.

What you can do is provide a proposition that appeals to the subconscious of your target. The successful Old Spice social media campaign (integrated with search ads, viral videos, paid ads, social ads, Twitter,  and an old-fashioned coupon initiative) didn’t hinge upon a robotic selling proposition like

Old Spice Code Red body wash is a synthetic blue fluid that contains a deodorizing agent combined with mild antibacterial chemicals. The scent, developed by a team of scientists in New Jersey, mimics that of the original Old Spice  brand of shaving products from the 1930s.

You should buy a bottle if you are a White or African-American male in the 16-35 demographic earning between $20,000 and $50,000 per year and have at least an undergraduate education.


That’s not what they did. While such autistic descriptions and call-to-actions can be appropriate for certain products (like if you were selling raw potassium to chemistry teachers), when it comes to creating a brand, you want to let the target fill in the blanks.

Like a great novel encourages the reader to imagine the details of a scene and thereby engages them in the story, a great marketing campaign seduces the prospect and elicits imagination.

The most effective marketing campaigns are those that increase profit margins on the product by creating a compelling narrative around it. That’s part of why people buy stuff in the first place – they want to tell themselves a story about it.

Products that defy the creation of a narrative (like toe-nail clippers) tend to drop in price towards the cost of production.

The marketer creates the beginning of that story and the general framework, but the subconscious of the viewer takes over the rest.

What’s different about a social media campaign is that it becomes a group storytelling project rather than a top-down initiative. An old example of this would be Trent Reznor’s guerilla marketing campaign for his concept album Year Zero, in which his team created an innovative Alternative Reality Game (ARG) in which his fans collaborated to piece together a story about the music before its release.

Interactivity is also a major theme in Inception. Their targets are better persuaded when they’re induced to participate in their own “discovery” of the implanted idea.

The key in such viral marketing campaigns similarly lies in making the brand story an interactive, self-starting myth to embody. In the specific example of Old Spice, this equates to a deliciously ironic–even sophomoric–parody of itself that both invites imitation and elaboration in the psyches of both giggling college-aged guys and newly-settled family men across America. At heart, of course, is a very ordinary plot to make enormous profits while the trend lasts, until it needs to be ingeniously reinvented again.

In the end, we want to give our business to someone who can make us love their brand. And of course, you have to appreciate an imaginatively funny joke.

About JC Hewitt

JC Hewitt is an independent copywriter and marketing consultant based in New York City. He loves innovative companies of all sizes.