Secrets of a Master:
John Forde on Memories, Behavior,
and the Volkswagen Beetle

Is it an accident that the new Volkswagen Beetle is such a smash hit?

Not at all.

How about the success of the Mazda Miata, another throwback car design? Again, very intentional.

It's no accident either that '60s tunes – from Van Morrison to the Beatles to the Who – are used to set the tone for car commercials that would otherwise have nothing to do with the '60s. Like ads for S.U.V.s or sedans, for instance.

It's also no accident that kids born in the '80s wear clothes that were hip in the '70s ...

Or that New Yorkers will STILL pay $70 for a pair of "Chuck Taylor" sneakers, a canvas shoe my mother used to pick up for me in the self-serve aisles of Kmart for $5 a pair ...

It's not a fluke that Adidas and Izod Lacoste shirts made a comeback ... or that pop music seems to re-visit and recycle the same trends every 5 to 10 years ...

Instead, it's the power of nostalgia, aptly exploited by smart marketers.

Blame the human capacity for vivid memory. Memory shapes how we perceive ourselves. It has a lot to do with how we decide to act in the future. And understanding how this process works can actually help you make crucial copywriting decisions, too.

Nostalgia is just one of the more obvious ways that advertisers capitalize on this. Here's another ...

Close your eyes. Picture yourself in an elevator. With a shudder, you feel it stop. You hear the ventilation fan whine down to silence. You see the panel lights and buttons go dark. Suddenly, the overhead lighting goes dark and you're left there with only the sound of your own breathing to fill the confined space. It seems like you have to suck harder just to get the oxygen out of the air. It's starting to get warm ...

Feeling claustrophobic?

Even if you've never been trapped in an elevator, your mind throws bits and pieces of memories – the darkness, the warm air, eerie silence – to create a whole image that disturbs.

Close your eyes again and imagine a piece of hot peach cobbler on your plate ... the rising steam ... the clotted cream ... the first sweet, sticky bite. Again, it's your memory that's doing all the work.

Good marketers know instinctively that our ability to retain details vividly makes the use of remembered details that much more compelling when they're part of a well-crafted ad.

In other words, memory influences behavior.

You don't really have to get deeply into the science of it to see what this has to do with writing good copy. But just in case you're interested ...

Most buying decisions start at an emotional level, not a rational one. And nothing gets emotions stirred faster than when new information reminds the sales prospect of vivid, emotionally charged memories.

This association process happens lightning fast; in an area of the brain science still has trouble comprehending. You see, our conscious brain activity – the inner voice we hear speaking as we read these words – is about as big when compared to total unconscious brain activity ... as a little pink eraser is to the length of the rest of a pencil.

Everything the body does, from keeping your heart beating to pumping your endocrine system, is slave to the mind. But most of all, the mind is preoccupied with the sorting of, storage of, and reaction to sensory input and data.

A TV image. The spoken word. A slice of pizza. Every one of them causes a flood of memory-processing activities. The colors are deciphered, compared, and remembered. Sounds and volume of words compared and contrasted. Content extracted and compared to lists of remembered vocabulary, past lessons, old dreams, books read and remembered, and so on...

But every tidbit of sensory input also has to pass through your brain's "amygdala," the region that weighs incoming information for emotional content and helps decide how to translate it for use in thought processes, storage, future behavior, and more. It's a little like having an air-traffic controller for your mind.

The stronger you feel about sensory input, the more widely it gets stored. And the more aggressively it gets etched onto the ambiguous entity we call the "conscious."

Yet when memories are formed, the changes are not nearly so abstract. In fact, the brain itself ... the patterns of neurons and cells ... physically alter. You can actually observe how "memory-filled" brain tissue is on an electron microscope. (Of course, this is a process best done to your brain after you're finished using it.)

The more your neurons are exercised by memory and experience, the more interconnected the brain cells. The more complex the network of dendrites. And the more complex the pattern, the more synapses can take place along those pathways.

This physical change in brain pathways is called "plasticity."

Rich, vivid environments create more plasticity than dull ones.

That's why rich, vivid experiences go such a long way toward shaping our future behavior. It's also why returning to memories of those experiences quickly stirs the same emotions we felt the first time around.

The selling act ... the writing of copy ... is just one-way to re-create rich, vivid environments for prospects.

But key to making it work is selecting the right set of details to recall. Which is why it's so essential to know a little more about the background of your target audience. Where they grew up ... what major world events had an impact on their lives ...what music they listened to ... what jobs they might have held ...

I have a 93-year-old grandmother whose memory isn't quite what it used to be. She has to be reintroduced to me every time I visit. You can imagine that it makes for interesting conversation. To find out how to keep her entertained, I read up a little on memory and how it's affected by age. As it turns out, dementia patients and Alzheimer's victims lose connections to whole tracts of data ... but typically retain small portions of their lives with vivid detail. One of the most frequently retained periods is the mid-to-late teens, for most people a pretty vivid time of life.

My grandmother, for instance, can remember what she was doing, in great detail, when we look at photos from the 1920s. So that's what we do when I visit.

But this theory applies elsewhere, too. For people who still have the rest of their memories intact. For instance, if you're writing for, say, an audience that's now 65 years old ...

You might want to carefully drop in allusions to what life was like from 1950 to 1955. It was very different from the world today. You might at least want to get a feel for what attitudes were like then and try to filter your copy so it appeals to that perspective of the world. Choosing the right remembered details is how you make your message relevant to your prospect.

[AWAI Board Member John Forde received his copywriting training from Bill Bonner and Michael Masterson. He has written several million-dollar controls, many of which have been translated for the French, German, and online markets. He has also served as Senior Copywriter and Group Publisher for Agora Publishing, and has trained apprentice copywriters in London, Paris, Bonn, and Baltimore.]

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Published: June 18, 2001

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