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The Dream Thief, the Economist & the Art of Planting Ideas

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A guest post by Aman Basanti of Age of Marketing.

In the hit sci-fi thriller "Inception," business mogul Saito wants to plant an idea in his rival’s mind. He wants him to sell off his freshly inherited business empire. So he brings in a team of master dream thieves led by Don Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), and together they carry out an elaborate scheme involving a dream within a dream within a dream to plant that very idea. But, as Saito posed in the movie, why the need for the elaborate dreaming?

“If you can steal an idea from someone’s mind,” asks Saito, “why can't you plant one there instead?”

The dream thieves explain that for inception to be successful, one has to feel a sense of ownership of the idea. That is, you have to think the idea is yours. But because a person can always trace where an idea came from, ownership is impossible to achieve if you simply place it in someone’s mind.

“Okay, here's me planting an idea in your head,” explains one of the dream thieves. “I say to you, don't think about elephants. What are you thinking about?”

“Elephants,” replies Saito.

“Right, but it's not your idea because you know I gave it to you. The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.”

In other words, it’s not hard to plant an idea but it’s hard to get someone to call it their own. Why the emphasis  on ownership? Because we value what we own far more than other, equally attractive, alternatives, whether they be real goods or ideas. And that, by the way, is science, not science fiction (see The Endowment Effect below).

But here’s the telling thing. If ownership was the key to inception, then there may have been a far easier, not to mention cheaper, way of achieving that end.

The Endowment Effect: Why “My” Ideas Are Better Than “Yours”

A few years ago, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, recruited a few thousand participants and asked them to evaluate solutions for some general problems (e.g. how communities reduce the amount of water they use without imposing tough restrictions).

Except that some of the participants assessed solutions provided to them by the experimenters, while others were asked to come up with their own solutions. What Ariely wanted to see was whether those who’d come up with their own solutions would value their solutions more than those who evaluated one provided to them by the experimenters.

Incredibly, they did. “In all cases, the participants rated their own solutions as much more practical, as having a greater potential for success and so on,” wrote Ariely.

Ariely figured if he could get people to think an idea was “theirs” then he could influence how much they valued that idea.

In that respect, Ariely’s revelation was the same as that of the dream thieves. Both realized the power of ownership in getting people to value an idea. But that was the easy part. The true challenge was to get participants to come up with the solution that Ariely wanted them to come up with while making them think that it was their idea.

On the face of it, the situation seemed impossible. Perhaps that’s why the dream thieves needed to go to such lengths to overcome it. Except that Ariely was no ordinary economist. He came from the insurgent school of economics called behavioral economics, and like all guerrilla forces, he had a simple and cheap fix up his sleeve.

The Real Inception: How to Really Plant an Idea

In his next experiment, he presented the participants with another set of problems. Only this time, rather than generate their own solutions from scratch, he had them reorganize a jumbled string of words to generate a solution.

For example, given the question, "How can communities reduce the amount of water they use without imposing tough restrictions?" Ariely gave them the following jumbled sentence: lawns drains using grey recycled recovered water household water from.

Their job was to arrange the jumbled sentence into a meaningful solution. For the example above, the solution, when reorganized, would spell "Water lawns using recycled grey water recovered from household drains."

Now this certainly ensured all the participants came up with the same answer, and more importantly, an answer Ariely wanted them to come up with---thus making it a powerful technique for planting ideas. The question was would the participants still feel the solution to be their own?

“You bet!” explained an ecstatic Ariely. “As it turned out, even reordering the words was sufficient for our participants to feel ownership and like the ideas better than the ones given to them.” To put it another way, Ariely successfully managed to get people to own ideas that were not really their own.

Why Saito Got Ripped Off

Just imagine how angry Saito’s going to be when he finds out that all he had to do to get the other guy to sell his dad’s business was to get him to un-jumble the phrase  Should I Business Dad’s My Sell (I should sell my dad’s business).

There he was spending millions hiring dream thieves, risking life and limbo running around in hostile minds.

What This Means for Your Marketing Efforts

What this means for you as a marketer is that if you can get people to take ownership of an idea, they will value it more and be more persuaded by it.

How do you get people to take ownership? Same way Ariely did---by getting them to complete your message.

Take Wonderbra, for example. Wonderbra wanted its customers to think that wearing a wonderbra will help them become attractive. But rather just saying so, they put out this little gem.

The communication works because it gets the audience to complete the message. It gets the audience to make the causal link between the outrageous number of friends requests and Wonderbra.

Similarly, ISCA Taps wanted its customers to think that ISCA Taps were beautiful. This is how it planted that idea.

Lazer Helmets wanted to claim that their helmets are really tough. This is how they planted that idea.

Jeep wanted to impress upon their customers that you could take a Jeep anywhere. This is how they planted that idea.

Bose wanted their customers to think that Bose headphones were really good at reducing noise. This is how they planted that idea.

Again, the reason these adverts work so well is because they get the audience to complete the communication. This gets the audience to take ownership of the idea, which makes the idea more valuable to them and the claim more credible.

If you want to plant ideas in your customers heads, structure your message so that they complete the communication rather than you saying it explicitly.

Aman Basanti writes about the psychology of buying at Age of Marketing.

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  • by Caleb Mon Feb 6, 2012 via blog

    Inception is one of my all time top favorites movies and I thought long and hard how to use this concept in my online marketing efforts. Ariel's experiment sheds major light on possible strategies to implement which is actually not new because I have read about a similar thing called "implied complimenting" where you do not directly give a compliment but make a statement that implies a compliment which the other person's mind automatically connects to this way they accept the idea as their own with an added benefit of connecting it to you thus creating a stronger sense of LIKING you!

    BTW, no doubt the Bose headphones work but in that last pic it looks like they work too good because that guy is about to kill himself :lol:

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