Magnetic Power of the Mental Image

Magnetic Power of the Mental Image

I recently wrote a Monday Morning Memo called Just a Regular Guy about how Chuck Wepner's fight against Muhammad Ali provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone to peck out the screenplay of Rocky, a low-budget film that, against all odds, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 1976. As expected, I was flooded with emails from people sharing stories of friends and family who “like Wepner” valiantly did their best in the face of insurmountable odds.

Funny thing is, that wasn't the point of the memo. Go back and read it and you'll see that I portray Wepner as a faithless and short-sighted goober who chose a 70 thousand dollar flat fee instead of an offered percentage of Rocky's gross receipts that would have netted him a sizzling 8 million dollars. My memo closes with the stinging accusation, “Stallone believed in Wepner. Wepner didn't believe in Stallone.”

The response to Just a Regular Guy is a perfect example of how a vivid Mental Image can easily override the narrative arc (story.) A mental image is much bigger than a mere visual image. A mental image is a complex composite of associative memories, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, opinion and mood. The mental image of Rocky as “just a regular guy” who did his best in the boxing ring was instinctively associated with Chuck Wepner – the progenitor of the Rocky archetype – when it was actually the screenwriter Stallone that I was trying to portray as “just a regular guy.”

This happens every day.

Movie reviewer Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe writes, “Does anyone remember that the original version of 'The Stepford Wives' was a horror movie? Women weren't bribed or brainwashed or seduced into becoming the perfect domestic and sex goddesses of suburbia. They were murdered by their husbands and replaced by robots. Well, somewhere along the last decades, the Stepford wife became an archetype, Mrs. Perfect, the cookie-cutter cookie maker. Adoring political spouses were labeled Stepford wives, children with all “A”s were Stepford kids, obedient White House press corps members were called Stepford reporters. The Stepford wife wasn't a victim but a conformist.”

An entire generation forgot the Stepford wives were murder victims because the movie's most powerful mental image was of the plastic-perfect poses of the polished Stepford wives with their vapid, empty smiles. That mental image remained with us long after the movie's plot was forgotten.

The average ad is built upon a superficial mental image. That's what makes it ineffective. The best ads – and the worst – are anchored to iconic mental images buried deep in the heart of the customer. In the best ads, these mental images are inextricably linked to the advertisers' products or services, such as in Devito/Verdi's fabulous radio series for the horseracing track. Their humor is based on the delivery style of the classic racetrack announcer so the mental image they conjure is inextricably linked to the advertiser, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. My wager is that dozens of radio stations will quickly say “What a clever idea” and adapt this style to local advertisers. But to use this “track announcer” style for any other advertiser would be ill advised since the mental image would be only tenuously related to the advertiser, at best. In other words, listeners would remember the ads but not the advertiser.These are the worst ads that can be written. Sort of like the memo I wrote about Sylvester Stallone.

A weak mental image is always a mistake. But a powerful mental image can be an even bigger mistake when it isn't inextricably linked to the advertiser. Selecting a mental image to build your campaign upon is the single most important – and most difficult – part of creating an effective ad campaign. My hat is off to the gang at Devito/Verdi.

Roy H. Williams

PS – Mark your calendars to be in Austin Saturday, October 2, for an Open House at the new 21-acre site of the Wizard Academy campus and retreat center. There'll be lots of food and fascinating stuff to see and do all day and into the evening. Everyone is invited. This will also serve as the Academy Graduates' reunion for 2004. Details coming soon. Arooo! Aroo-arooo!