How to sell like Dom Cobb in Inception

by Tom Albrighton 6 December 2010 Copywriting

What if we could enter someone else’s dream, and shape it to our own ends? That’s the premise of the magnificent science-fiction thriller Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan and released for home viewing today. (The tagline: ‘Your mind is the scene of the crime’.)

In the film, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team are hired to infiltrate the unconscious mind of businessman Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and convince him to break up his father’s business empire rather than sell it to a rival – a deal that would create a harmfully dominant super-corporation. To do this, they create a wholly convincing set of dreams within dreams in Fischer’s mind, through which he is guided by the team themselves.

The process is incredibly subtle and complex, since successful inception (idea-planting) depends on the subject believing that the new concept or impulse is wholly their own, not instilled by an outsider.

In a sense, the copywriter or marketer is on a similar mission. Through advertising media, we must enter the reader’s mind, convince them that they need some product or service and encourage them to act on that perception. So what lessons we can learn from Nolan’s ontological infiltrators?

The target is a person

Much of the set-up for the inverted heist at the movie’s climax involves Cobb’s team tailoring their skills to the person they’re targeting. They know they can shape and manipulate dreams at a general level, but that’s not enough – they need to create a dreamworld that’s completely convincing to Fischer as an individual.

Marketing messages should be developed in the same way. Even though marketing is, by its nature, a ‘one to many’ form of communication, the best results come from messages that are oriented towards individuals – either in the sense of a generalised customer profile, or actually customised to specific readers in some way.

For the copywriter, it’s crucial to write for the audience as a person, not a group. Trust and rapport come from writing that feels one-to-one, even if it’s not. Like Cobb and his team, we’re using our skills to draw the reader into a convincing world that feels as though it’s been made just for them.

Emotions drive actions

When Cobb first receives the brief to redirect Fischer’s business strategy, he has little idea how he’ll translate a corporate strategy (rational, factual, abstract) – into the language of dreams (emotional, symbolic, concrete). But Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can impersonate others within dreams, soon finds the key: Fischer’s relationship with his recently deceased father. By convincing Fischer that his father wanted him to follow his own path, they can make the decision to break up his business seem like a natural step.

For marketers, the lesson is that emotions drive actions. This is an even more important point than the distinction between features and benefits. From the earliest stage – from the first line of copy – marketing needs to be engaging with the emotions that will drive readers towards action. This is even true in B2B marketing – business buyers are people too.

This doesn’t just mean the emotions involved in using the product in a narrow sense. It means all the emotions associated with the experience of touching a brand, from glancing at an advert to replacing a worn-out kettle. Every user experience is relevant – and that includes the experience of reading marketing material. An ad can evoke positive emotions that are nothing to do with the product, yet they will still rub off on it one way or another. Consider classic campaigns such as the PG Tips chimps (the UK’s favourite advertising characters ever) or the Smash martians (Campaign’s TV ad of the century) – entertainment as much as marketing, and brilliant ways to associate positive vibes with a product.

Actions drive sales

As the team guide Fischer towards the revelation they’ve prepared for him, they’re careful to let him make all the key decisions and leaps of logic himself. It’s his dream, after all – so instead of coercing him, they manipulate his surroundings and the other figures in his dream in order to prod him towards certain actions.

The lesson here is that people like doing things themselves. It’s a key concept in the world of video games, where game designers and developers aim to give players a convincing sense of ‘agency’ – the conviction that their actions matter and have consequences in the game’s imagined world. Even though they have incredible visuals and physics these days, games still need the audience to suspend their disbelief a little – and agency is the key to that.

The desire for agency seems to be ‘hardwired’ into our psyches as a way to make us learn. Observe the way small children shrilly demand to do everything themselves – particularly things that are just outside their competence, which can be a bit wearing. But it’s only by doing that they can learn.

How can writing facilitate agency in the reader? Isn’t reading a one-way, non-interactive experience by its nature? Well, essentially it is – but there are still some things we can do to involve the reader. Asking questions and making ambiguous or provocative statements engages the reader in the message, inviting their thoughts or reactions. Diagrams like infographics and flowcharts also encourage engagement (provided they are actually engaging and comprehensible). Online, there are opportunities to get readers involved with animation, revealed text, forms and other devices.

However, all these techniques must be used sparingly, and always in service of the message. And we should never forget that just reading some text is active rather than passive. If people keep reading, they’re engaged.

Don’t forget the kick

When Dom Cobb’s team have completed their mission, they use the ‘kick’ to wake themselves up, abruptly withdrawing from the dream world. The kick is some physical jolt administered to a sleeper that yanks them back to reality.

The copywriting equivalent is the call to action. It’s all very well spinning a magical verbal world for the reader, but it has to lead on to a real-world action. So you need to hit them with a snappy call to action that explains what they should actually do in order to act on your message. Wake up – time to buy.

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