Why Advertising Is Like Inception

On a long flight between India and Spain, I found myself watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I find that movies (and any other art form) always acquire new shades of meaning at different points in my life; and though I had seen Inception before, this time something struck me.

This conversation between Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) and Eames (Tom Hardy) when Cobb sets out to recruit a forger. To me, this conversation is the perfect briefing.

Not only is the exchange about the problem at hand (to follow) interesting in itself, but the lead up to this where they talk about an idea being “planted deep enough”versus “the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject’s mind” is one that I find we discuss in marketing today. This is the difference between brands being successful after repeated messaging, versus being successful simply by being relevant and simple.

The briefing itself then follows:

Cobb: “We need the heir (Whose behaviour are we trying to influence?) of a major corporation to dissolve his father’s empire (What is the behaviour we are seeking?)”

Eames: “Well you see right there you have various political motivations and anti-monopolistic sentiments and so-forth but all of that stuff is really at the mercy of your subject’s prejudice. What you have to do is to start at the absolute basic: the relationship with the father (The Insight)”

When you think about it, these are certainly the most important part of any brief.

This conversation also makes me conclude that what we do in advertising and marketing is not very different from Inception. We plant ideas that take life in our audiences’ minds. And as Eames put it, “It’s a very subtle art”. We too, are still trying to figure out what works, and advertising too is a subtle art. But we do know this: identifying what drives our audience, and clear briefings work.


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