These Aren’t The Insights You’re Looking For

Last week on the blog we published an obituary for the Traditional Concept, which struck a nerve and became our most-read post for months. Research concepts, we argued, are simply too reasonable – they are appeals to deliberative System 2 thinking in a world where decisions are actually made by our fast, emotionally-guided System 1.

So concepts ought to try and reach System 1 first: they should be far more visual, ought to have more emotional charge and ought to be easier to process (i.e. use fewer words). This isn’t because we think those concepts will necessarily do better in tests – though in our validations many do – but because System 1 concepts replicate real behavioural context better, and are more differentiated. It’s easier with System 1 concepts to tell apart the winners from the losers.

The next question is – what should such concepts include? In upcoming posts we’ll talk about that. But this post is about something they shouldn’t include. Concepts that appeal to System 1 should not lead off with an insight statement.

Perhaps this seems like odd advice. After all, a good insight ought to be a universal human truth – something that feels intuitively right. If we’re looking for emotional impact, isn’t the insight the most emotional part of a concept?

“Luuuuke…. I am your insiiiiight…”

The reason for dropping insights boils down to three words: show, don’t tell. It’s the most basic advice to scriptwriters and it applies to concept writing too. If you have a human truth behind your concept, it should be something people can feel in the visuals and the description. It doesn’t have to be something they can articulate. In fact, sometimes it shouldn’t be.

For example, let’s think about Star Wars.

Why do people like Star Wars? For all kinds of reasons. The spaceships, the robots, the mythology, the heroism, and increasingly the forty-year heritage of the brand. But once upon a time it didn’t have that heritage. So the question is – why did people like Star Wars, back in 1977?

Let’s put it another way. If you’d been testing Star Wars as a concept, how would you have pitched it? What’s the insight?

Star Wars was seen as quite a risk at the time – the modern concept of the effects-laden Summer blockbuster didn’t exist before Star Wars: it’s the film’s main legacy. On the other hand, Star Wars wasn’t completely new. George Lucas was inspired by the adventure serials of his childhood, and by the structures of fairy tales and myths.

So you’ve got something which is like an epic saga in space – with plenty of high-impact, fantastic visual effects and designs.

How do you sell that? The film poster simply lifted the first words of the opening title crawl – “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

This is, it turns out, not just a great way to open a film: it’s one of the greatest bits of copywriting ever. In ten words it communicates both the mythic elements (“a long time ago”) and the space aspect (“in a galaxy far, far away”). Add that now-iconic visual of Luke Skywalker holding a light saber like a sword, and the pictures of spaceships, and you have an image that also communicates some of this blend of saga and sci-fi.

Now let’s imagine how a traditional market research concept for Star Wars might have laid things out. Insight. Benefit. Reason to Believe.

“People love epic stories and myths, but most films today are more mundane. What if there was a modern story which captured that epic feel? (Insight)

Star Wars is a science-fiction saga which combines the excitement of the stories and adventure serials of our childhood with the very latest special effects. (Benefit)


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our ad testing tool (Test Your Ad) and our concept testing tool (Test Your Idea) quickly predict the short-term commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand testing platform which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health.

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The Director, George Lucas, has drawn on the universal elements of myth and heroic stories to craft this film. The state of the art special effects are provided by Lucas’ Industrial Light And Magic, using unique technology and expertise developed specially for Star Wars. (Reason To Believe)

Sounds convincing, right? Right? No, not really. And how patronising and hand-holding that insight sounds – telling where it ought to be showing. (If you can come up with a better traditional concept version of Star Wars, though, we’d love to hear it)

Show, don’t tell. It was true in null, and it’s true now, because we make decisions based on emotional impressions, not on considered agreement. The insight is the force behind a concept, and you shouldn’t explain it – just use it.

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