Mystery And Marketing: The Magic of Compulsion

January 23, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

For those of us in advertising and marketing, there’s an endless quest to find newer and better ways to drive success for our clients. To move from inertia to momentum we use big ideas, technology, strategy, media planning, new product development, promotion, and half a dozen other things.

Whether we realize it or not, in each one there is a common thread that consciously and subconsciously intrigues consumers to the core. It’s something none of us can ignore. And that’s why it works.

That thread is mystery.


Nature abhors a vacuum. We know because Aristotle said so. But we also know it deep in our gut. Where there is nothing, we want something. Where there is quiet, we want sound. Where there is open space, we want to build. And where there is a question … we want an answer. More accurately, we can’t stand not to have an answer.

That’s what makes mystery sticky. It stays with us because we have to have resolution. How does the story end? What toy is at the bottom of my cereal box? Who dunnit? It makes us physically uncomfortable not to know.

That’s what makes mystery such an effective marketing element. Look at history:

After 40 years of trying to market its popcorn, peanuts, and molasses to adults, in 1912, Cracker Jack shifted its focus to kids and started putting small toy prizes in every box. Sales went through the roof. Not because people suddenly loved the product. The kids couldn’t wait to uncover their prize.

In 1969, a commercial debuted with a young boy asking a bunch of cartoon animals one simple question: “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” At the end of the spot, Mr. Owl says the answer is three, but that was clearly unsatisfactory to the general public. In the decades that followed, that single question spawned dozens of research projects, university studies, and hundreds of millions of individual trials (according to a University of Cambridge study, the answer is 3,481). It also sold a fortune in candy. By 2002, Tootsie Roll was cranking out 20 million Tootsie Pops every day.

On March 21, 1980, the television world was turned upside down when Larry Hagman’s character J.R. Ewing was unexpectedly shot on the season-ending cliffhanger of “Dallas.” For eight months afterward, a CBS teaser campaign had everyone asking “Who Shot J.R.?” and when the killer was revealed on November 21, 1980, more than 350 million people around the world tuned in to watch. In the U.S. alone, the episode pulled an incredible 79 share!


One of the best restaurant promotions I’ve ever heard used the idea of mystery to perfection. At the end of each meal, diners were given a “special envelope” that could only be opened on their next visit. Inside each envelope, there was a gift card with a discount of 20 to 100 percent, good on the next meal. But if the card was opened before then, the offer inside was void.

Not surprisingly, the “mystery envelope” was extremely effective. Why? Because nobody could stand to think they might have a card for a FREE dinner and not know for sure. That’s like handing a friend a lottery ticket and telling them they could never check to see if they’d won.

As we’ve discussed in recent blogs, social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini has done extensive research in the area of influence and persuasive communication and, in his new book “PRE-Suasion,” he explores this connective power of mystery.

When something grabs our attention, we tend to focus on it and give it added weight and importance because we are focusing on it. With mystery, people stay focused longer because there isn’t immediate closure. It’s like trying to remember something that’s on the tip of your tongue. Until you remember and close the loop, it’s hard to think about anything else. When we wrap a brand or a concept in mystery, the same thing happens.

Want to sell coffee? You could show Folger’s Crystals and just tell people how good it is. Or, you could go to the finest restaurants in New Orleans, replace their coffee with Folger’s, and see if anyone notices.

Want to sell the concept of a personal computer in 1984? You could try to explain why people who had never even seen a computer actually needed one in their house. Or, you could build a spot around George Orwell’s dystopian epic “1984” like Apple did and let people answer the mystery for themselves.

Want to sell insurance? Create characters who act out insurance scenarios that are so extreme, and so funny, the audience cannot wait to see what absurd mystery will unfold in the next spot. See GEICO. See Allstate’s Mayhem. See Farmer’s. See Progressive.

Mystery in marketing is magic because we cannot ignore it. Questions demand answers. Beginnings require endings. And where brands create a vacuum, consumers will fill it. They can’t help themselves.

Knock knock?

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog




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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.