The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

Grant McCracken and Bob Scarpelli

Take a look at this recent AT&T ad.  Notice what the actress does at the 16:00 – 17:00 second mark.  That little thing she does with her hand and her eyes.

Here’s a second ad for AT&T from a couple of years ago.  Watch what happens at the very end when the neighborhood woman sends a glance to the neighborhood kid.

Here’s an ad for Volvo.  Listen to what the little girls says.

We know ads are designed to deliver information, the USP, the product proposition, the value claim.  And we can see the bones of these things in a lot of ads, especially in those agonizingly bad ones that are really just someone reading the Unique Selling Proposition.

“This product is good because [insert USP here].  You will like it.  You should buy it.”

But I have long suspected that the informational mechanics and the persuasive objectives of an ad don’t work without the little details we’ve just been looking at.   The little details, the flicker of the hand, the flash of the eyebrow, the little girl chattering on and on.  These are essential to the ad’s ability to make the sale.  I think.  Maybe.

But how?  They are so little.  So minor.  So easy to miss.  It’s a question that has rattled around in my head for a couple of years.  How do tiny details make the ad?

And today, I sat down beside Bob Scarpelli, on a flight from NYC to Chicago.  I know Bob courtesy of Rick Boyko who was kind enough to put us both on Sparkstarters, his enterprise designed to help clients or agencies rekindle their powers of creativity.

Bob and I fell into conversation.  He is one of those guys who is really easy to talk to.  I was busy gabbing about myself when it occurred to me that I really should ask him about what he was working on.  (I do this with great reluctance and some resentment but then I am an anthropologist and really it’s my job to ask people about their lives.)

It turns out that Bob is teaching a course with John Greening at Northwestern’s Medill School called Brand Content in the Social World (aka “What’s the Big Idea?”)  Bob and John spend a lot of time talking about advertising and creativity.

“Great!,” I thought, “someone who might know the answer to the question ‘Why do small gestures matter so much?’”

And hey presto, he did.

“Oh, I call those ‘Magic Moments.’”

And Bob recounted the story of Joe Pytka on the set of an ad yell at his actors, “Stop acting!  Just be yourselves.”  No magic moments come from acting.  Whatever they are, they feel like life.

Bob described a Budweiser ad that shows soldiers in an airport and the people who gather to applaud them.

There is a lot to like about this ad, but Bob says that the “magic moment” comes at the very end when one of the soldiers looks back a little disbelievingly at what just happened.  That is many things about America in the blink of an eye, the beat of a heart.  So magic moments are also revelational, suddenly revelational.  The tiny detail delivers a world of meaning.

Bob said that the magic moment is almost impossible to plan.  It is very hard to tell at the moment that strategy and creativity are being formed what the magic moment could be or should be.  Virtually impossible in fact.

You know it when it happens and in some cases not even then.  You have to wait for editing.  And there it is.   A gift from the gods of creativity,  spontaneity and the perfect telling detail.

You could call this a chasm problem.  (I borrow the term from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.)    On the one side, we can have the creativity and strategy, all the work performed by researchers, planners, strategists and creatives of every kind.  And on the other we have the spot which, if the gods of advertising are kind. is blessed with one of these magic moments.

But we can’t see the connection between the two.  We can’t figure out how things get from the left side to the right side.


So there are two mysteries.  The first is how to make a magic moment.  The second is how the magic moment does what it does.  How does it activate all the planning, strategy and creativity?  Something arcs across the chasm.  We just don’t know what it is or how it works.  How do these “hemispheres” talk to one another.

So things are a little clearer.  I now know what to call that telling detail, but I can’t say exactly what is, where it came from or how it works.  So there is some work to do.  Your comments, please.

More to come.  Watch this space.

11 thoughts on “The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

  1. Pingback: ADnjus | The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

  2. Adrian Blake

    I may be oversimplifying, but isn’t the magic moment just the synthesis between the brand messaging and normal human behavior, a/k/a good acting? It’s the same thing we ask actors to do– read the lines as written, but make it feel real. It usually doesn’t happen on the first take.

  3. Grant Post author

    Adrian, that may be exactly it, the difference between what’s on paper and then made to live in the world. But it still seems odd to me that we can’t say what would make a good “magic moment” for what we have on the page. Why the indeterminacy? I guess this post makes a good case for why we pay actors and directors so handsomely, when we do. They are making something abstract and formal, real and relatable. You are right, this has to be some of it. Thanks, Grant

  4. michael haywood

    Yesterday I came across two photos of a friend who had recently and tragically passed away. I had captured magic moments of pure delight while interacting with his wife. The magic, to my mind, was a spontaneous, very honest and touching synaptic reaction to an entertaining dinner conversation. There was a glint in his eyes that revealed a deep and soulful bond to someone he loved dearly – pure joy!

    Creativity and strategy in organizational or corporate settings may be able to stage events or stories, but it takes far more to reveal and capture the humanity of magic moments, let alone create them. As a result most ads are dull and devoid of meaningful emotion. In these situations chasms don’t even exist. (“Just the facts ma’am, just the facts” – Dragnet))

    When and if magic moments can be created, chasms can only be bridged through synapses that tug at the heartstrings, touch our emotions, or accelerate the pulse. Even then, the absence of humanity may make the message or magic moment unbelievable or unaccessible.

    1. Grant Post author

      Michael, Well said. I did a lot of work for Kodak years ago, and the same mystery applied here too. People would end up treasuring a photo that was usually at the moment of its taking one of hundreds of photos. Thanks! Grant

  5. Jon

    The magic moments can’t be planned because they are involuntary ‘tells’ that reveal the truth to our subconscious about the information being presented.

    The human mind is always evaluating what it sees from its mental template of reality. We form judgements based on our visual perceptions. These ‘tells’ inform our subconscious that ‘that wouldn’t have happened if it were fake’.

    Creativity can’t plan for that because the crafting of an idea is always grounded in a fiction…. until a moment of truth makes that fiction believable.

    The skill of an advertiser is to convince customers that it’s creative fiction is true. The ‘magic moments’ transform persuasive entertainment into trust through an inadvertent aspect of believability. If you could plan it then it probably wouldn’t be true.

  6. Rick Liebling

    Grant, I think you can find these “magic moments” in a lot of places. For me, growing up I loved listening to comedy albums. I would listen to them so many times that I didn’t just know the jokes, I knew the pauses, the “ums” the other little verbal ticks the comedian had. For me, saying the jokes out load while listening to the album really cam alive when I could also mimic those verbal tics.

    In a completely different way you could find magic moments in sports by looking at how often the “great plays” are created by players without the ball making moves. Truly astute observers of a football match will note how the run made by one forward completely opened up the space for the goalscorer. Or in (American) football, the magic moment wasn’t the perfectly executed 50 yard pass, it was the little glance the QB and the receiver shared at the line of scrimmage that signaled they both knew what play they were going to run.

    But to get back to advertising, I think a lot must happen between the actor and director. How many takes are you willing to do on at AT&T spot until you get that magic moment? How quickly does a director pick up on that subtlety and tell actor, “wait, what was that? Do that again!” Or is a sharp eyed editor in post production that tells the director he may have found something interesting?

    1. Grant Post author

      Rick, thanks, yes to negative space, so that the world we don’t control or manage can rush in. And yes, to lots of takes. Lots and lots of takes. Cause you can’t know what will serve til it arrives. So there is a huge incentive to keep going and going…even as you wrestle with a law of diminishing returns as everyone gets more and more tired and cranky. Thanks, Grant

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