How is it possible that a string of fake pearls, purchased at Bergdorf Goodman for about $25, eventually sold at auction for $211,000?
Well, it certainly helps that Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy had worn this particular necklace in almost every historical photograph featuring herself and her husband President John F. Kennedy.
As Lynda Resnick, the woman who later bought the pearls interestingly said, the pearls had become “the icon of the icon.”
But they were still cheap baubles on a string, a handful of glass beads and nothing more.
Were they really worth that much just because Jackie had worn them?
The answer to this very important question lies in the set-up, the payoff, and the open loop.
How you set yourself up without knowing it
The events and drama associated with a place, day, or item inevitably mark that item with more
than symbolic significance.
Jackie’s style, her much-photographed life, and her presence as an icon in both our history and national psyche have all become associated with those pearls.
It’s also possible to do the same in your copywriting. You can set up an action, place, thing, or
event to carry its own emotional charge — and pay off your readers’ investment later by releasing that emotional charge for effect.
Naturally, it’s hard to orchestrate a Jackie Kennedy-level emotional investment. Historical events of that caliber don’t come around every day — and they’re often decades in the making.
But you don’t need history; you make the same emotional, irrational investments in events and things all the time.
And you’re willing to pay more to engage with them.
Here are two tangible examples:
- Your wedding ring probably came with a price tag, a very solid market value. But would you really be willing to relinquish your wedding ring even if someone offered you double what it’s “worth”?
- If you have an heirloom like a watch or a hunting rifle or a book that belonged to your grandfather, it’s likely you wouldn’t be willing to sell for anywhere near its objective worth or value.
The same applies for events that carry emotional investment.
When you celebrate birthdays, you’re willing to pay more money for food, presents, and outings than you would at other times even though that day is objectively no different than any other day of the year.
One of the reasons we’re willing to invest so much in these kinds of events and objects (financially and emotionally) is that returning to an already emotionally charged item, place, or day inevitably spotlights whatever has changed in your life from one experience to the next.
The payoff lies in being able to re-experience all the feelings that were initially set up when you first encountered that situation or that object.
It’s why you can’t help but reminisce over the last year as New Year’s Eve approaches, or why you get a little teary-eyed as you mark a new pencil etching of your kid’s height above the dozen others from the years before.
Set-ups and payoffs let you highlight change, transformation, and emotional attachment in ways that demand symbolic treatment.
The examples mentioned above happen more or less naturally. But it’s also possible to create the set-up of emotional attachment and recoup the payoff by capitalizing on that emotion.
One of the best and most relatable examples is film.
Movies are designed to give you an emotional set-up and then offer you a payoff — a release — of that emotional involvement so you feel satisfied by the entire experience.
Get your audience engaged in your payoff
Want to see the set-up and payoff in action? Let’s take a masterful example from Pixar’s film UP.
If you’ve never seen UP before, the opening 8-minute set-up is a masterful small film in itself, and well worth the time to see it. While you watch, try to identify as many emotional set-ups — events or objects that ask you to invest in them emotionally — and payoffs as you can.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest set-ups and pay-offs at play (and let us know in the comments about any more you find):
- The Set-up: Carl holding one blue balloon at the beginning of film. The single balloon becomes symbolic of being alone AND of his first meeting with Ellie.
- The Payoff: The blue balloon symbol is repeated at Ellie’s funeral and in the scene showing Carl’s return home from the funeral: Carl is alone again, but the symbol is still heavy with Ellie’s presence.
- The Set-up: Ellie floating a balloon tied to a short stick through Carl’s window after his accident. At that set-up, it was a play on that first balloon that Carl lost in the playhouse, and was already “paying off,” but this modified balloon was also being set-up for a later “pay-off”
- The Payoff: Carl floating the same balloon-stick combo to Ellie while she was in the hospital.
- The Set-up: Ellie’s Adventure Book shared with Carl as kids, initiating a bond between them.
- The Payoff: Repeated symbol used by Carl as a revival of hope, particularly after Ellie’s heartbreaking news that she can’t have kids.
- The Set-up: Cross your heart symbol, which represents the promise Carl and Ellie make as kids to go to Paradise Falls.
- The Payoff: Same cross your heart symbol repeated between Carl and Ellie as young adults following the news that they can’t have children.
- The Set-up: Mailbox hand print for Carl symbolizes his own unsure bumbling, along with Ellie’s artistic flair that manages to magically transmute the bumbling into a kind of harmony. In other words, the mailbox becomes symbolic of their relationship.
- The Payoff: When the mailbox is knocked over by the construction machinery, a workman struggles with Carl to help fix it. Carl hits the workman over the head with his walker/cane to keep him from touching the mailbox – we are sympathetic to this unusual display of anger because we know the mailbox means more to him than the worker suspects.
- The Set-up: Climbing the hill and picnicking is linked to imagination and adventurous daydreaming about the future.
- The 1st Payoff: Climbing the hill is linked to adventurous day-dreaming about having a baby — a thwarted plan that leads to Carl’s proposal for visiting Paradise Falls, a trip that would “close the loop” on so many elements of this first 8 minutes of film.
- The 2nd Payoff: Climbing the hill becomes the scene for Carl’s planned surprise announcement that the trip would finally take place, only to have the scene become tragic as Ellie collapses and has to be rushed to the hospital.
The payoffs for those set-ups don’t end at the conclusion of those 8 minutes, either.
Throughout the entire movie, the set-ups are revisited again and again, giving the audience a payoff on their emotional involvement every time.
That’s the open loop: leaving the set-up open to constant revisitation.
Clearly, the technique worked well for UP: it received rave reviews (many of them lauding that iconic 8-minute clip) and great box office numbers.
So how can you use the same techniques of set-up, payoff, and the open loop to get people to invest their emotions and their money in your own ventures?
Setting up your copywriting for a payoff
To create the same kind of set-up and payoff the movies do, you need to imbue your copywriting with emotion.
Here are a few of the most effective techniques for doing that:
1. Create an emotionally resonant before-and-after comparison.
We’re not talking about your standard rags-to-riches narrative.
The average spiel has no emotional resonance, no artistry in the telling. It’s usually just a straight-up, “I didn’t have two cents to rub together, and now I own three homes and a Porsche. And you can, too!”
That’s a cheap way of getting across the before-and-after set-up and payoff. There’s a much better way to accomplish this.
Use a symbolic place, person, event, or thing that’ll highlight the change in your fortunes a bit more elegantly.
Tell about the time your little sister gave you her old computer because you couldn’t afford a new one after yours crashed.
Then tell about the moment your phone rang as your sister called to thank you for the brand
new 17’ Macbook Pro you sent her. Tell us about the way your old computer still sits in a place of
pride as your “inspiration computer” that you use to write the really important projects.
If you want to make it real, give us a real object to feel emotionally attached to. Without giving us
that emotional involvement, we can’t feel the payoff when the turnaround happens.
2. Slip a (seemingly) throw-away detail into your opening to increase the symbolism of your closing image
Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz recently wrote a post on what to do when family or friends failed to take you seriously because you work from home.
Her audience is a huge crew of small-business owners. Some of them work from home,
some don’t, but most probably assumed that the term “work from home” encapsulated any
business that doesn’t have all the traditional accoutrements we tend to associate with “real”
“Work from home” could mean “having a one-person business that has an office away from home.”
It could mean “working on a laptop in a coffeeshop.”
It’s just a handy placeholder that lets her readership know she’s talking about them.
Then, the payoff.
At the end of the piece, Naomi used this immortal line: “You know who else works out of his home office? THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”
Booyah! A huge payoff that wouldn’t have happened if she had said “ittybiz owners”, as she often has for other posts.
“Work from home” seemed innocent enough, but her choice of powerful trigger words made the emotional payoff immense for a readership that needs to hear their work is valuable and worthy.
3. Use a created symbol as a key part of your narrative’s turning point, and repeat it as part of your call to action
Read the following invitation/sales letter (another marketing masterpiece penned by Roy H.
Williams) and ask yourself, why is the call to action so intriguingly compelling?
- How did Roy set up the use of Snapdragons and Rowdiness in the beginning of the letter?
- How did he add emotional resonance to these things in the middle of the letter?
- And what impact did that all have on the final call to action?
Drop your answers in the comments below. And this time, I won’t spoil your chance to shine by giving you my answers.
I’ll let you close the loop on this one.
About the Author: Jeff Sexton is a partner in the Wizard of Ads consulting firm, a well-known online copywriter and optimization expert, as well as a faculty member at Wizard Academy, where he co-teaches Persuasive Online Copywriting. You can find him online at www.jeffsextonwrites.com.