How and Why to Start Using the Element of Surprise in Your Copy
Don’t you love the roller coasters that start with that agonizing ascent? Rickedy rockedy notch by notch, it takes its sweet-ass time in bringing you up, up, up. It’s building your anticipation and expectation that you’ll be dropped, only to fake you out and TURN instead!
It’s the only time a turn feels scarier than a drop because you anticipated it differently. The ride’s turned on your expectation and shook you out of your preconception.
Surprise! The Secret Behind The Best Roller Coasters
I doubt anyone is on auto-pilot or tuned out on a roller coaster, even if does go a predictable route. But I do think the experience is enhanced by surprise. Likewise, I think that marketing can entice without humor and surprise, but marketing that incorporates it can not just catch but hold people’s attention.
I’m so inundated by advertising that I automatically tune it out. Like the single-minded Tinder bros with obvious agendas and pick-up lines, advertising bait often strikes me as transparent and boring. But the moment a guy or ad says something surprising and I cannot guess the manner of persuasion, I perk up and pay attention.
Some people are so risk-adverse that they avoid roller coasters, hate surprise parties and say things like “I keep my expectations low so I’m never disappointed.” These people are the ones you need surprise the most. They’re so controlled that they’re begging to be shook up. They’re the kind of people who wear their cynicism like a badge and find curiosity and honesty nauseating. They’re the audience you gotta have in mind. People who seem the most unreceptive. That way, you’ll work beyond the tropes to deliver clever surprises. Getting these people to leak out a laugh is the ultimate victory.
Surprise! The Secret Behind the Best Commercials
I had to create a soda commercial for a class once. A bunch of guys in the class went to Vegas to create a chic Jones Soda ad. They had beautiful visuals with Venetian waterworks. They thought spending money, traveling to a cool place, and emphasizing visuals over copy was foolproof. The commercial I created centered on a bunch of rich socialites arguing over what was in their pappardelle pasta dish. “It’s Moroccan I believe,” “Oh Sylvia, I definitely detect a Western tinge on my palette.” As the pretentious dinner snobs argue, the hostess of the party turns to the camera, drops her British accent, and says with smug irreverence, “I put f####### Pepsi in it.”
This commercial’s premise was all about setting up expectation and turning that expectation on its head. It was heavily lauded by my teachers and classmates. It was used as an example of successful advertising. While its visuals were simple, its surprise was delightful and hilarious. People laughed out loud even during a second viewing when they knew the surprise. It was memorable. And it even made Pepsi have a different sort of favorable perception. It was my foray into understanding why surprise is a key ingredient to humor.
Humor always relies on setup and punchlines. We see this in both horror and comedy. Both of those genres rely on anticipation and release. Punchlines are surprises. Even if the setup is the expectation of a brand having a certain type of voice and then turning on that expectation.
Surprise! The Secret Behind Switching Brand Voice
We expect a vitamin company to talk to us in a nagging mom voice. We expect a sports supplement company to feature tight, taut Greek god and goddess types. What we don’t expect from either is humor. That’s why humor will stand out. Customers expect a lecture. They expect an infographic on magnesium. They don’t expect you to have a cartoon of a Boron Supplement about to marry Candida Yeast and probiotics yelling “I object!” This cartoon is conveying that Boron and Candida are incompatible in a fresh way. Corniness aside, it’s atypical. Likewise, with sports supplements campaigns, if you feature a girl grinning while she holds a chicken wing flailing, failing yoga pose, you’ve got a scroll-stopper. She’s interesting precisely because she’s not the typical representative so she catches your attention.
The (Surprise) Secret to Keeping Surprises Fresh
But when do surprise tactics in marketing become gotcha! gimmicks? When your audience starts to anticipate that you’ll turn instead of drop, you’ve got a problem on your ride. Now they’re expecting you to turn things on their head so they’re hyper vigilant and anticipating shocks. We’re familiar with this feeling when we’re watching a scary movie and we’re walking down the stairs. (Or up the stairs! Stairs are never going to heaven in horror movies.)
Anyway, when an audience is anticipating a surprise to jump out, you’ve got to turn on their expectation in a new way. Going back to a nutrition brand, maybe they’re used to your fun-loving voice now so it’s not as novel and interesting. Maybe now’s the time to return to your voice of authority and create identity quizzes that reveal “Which vitamin are you?” This incorporates both informative and humorous tones and appeals to the curiosity of the customers.
Curiosity and surprise are always related. You can’t have one without the other. The tell-tale signs of rigid CEOs and cynics are that they lost their curiosity and sense of wonder. Instead, they’re so sure and certain that they know everything and have seen it all. Turn the roller coaster upside down on them and you’ve got the key to viral content.
Samantha S writes direct, dynamic, digestible copy for any purpose and any medium. She has written for apps, games, websites, literary journals, trade magazines, newspapers, e-commerce brands and health//nutrition brands. Samantha’s most notable achievements are authoring a guidebook for College Prowler, interviewing Leonardo Dicaprio, Zac Efron, and Amy Sherman-Palladino for The Hollywood Reporter, reviewing books for Publishers Weekly, covering the World Series of Poker, teaching creative writing at Harvard-Westlake, and working as Editor-in-Chief of The Oval literary magazine.