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Can brands harness the power of a cliff-hanger?

There have been many great TV endings, but none more memorable than that of The Sopranos. Though it aired more than thirteen years ago, most fans clearly remember the finale.

Mob boss, Tony Soprano, sits unprotected with his family in a diner. He puts Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing on the jukebox and orders onion rings. Other customers eye him suspiciously. The scene’s tense, as we know a rival mob boss is trying to whack Tony.

The door tinkles as someone enters. But we never see who - the screen cuts sharply to black. A few seconds of silence, then the credits roll.

Does the blackness symbolise his death? Or does it represent the never-ending tension he has to endure? We’ll never know.

I’ve watched thousands of hours of TV since, but I can still picture that ending perfectly. Why?

The Zeigarnik effect

Well, psychologists have an explanation. Back in 1927 a Soviet psychologist called Bluma Zeigarnik published a paper called On Finished and Unfinished Tasks. In it, she outlines an experiment where she gave participants a series of tasks, such as solving puzzles or assembling furniture. Later, Zeigarnik questioned the participants about details of the process.

The twist was that half of the participants were allowed to complete the task, while the remainder were stopped in the middle of what they were doing. The interrupted participants were able to recall about 90% more details compared to those who completed the task.

This finding became known as the Zeigarnik effect.

The practical application

Good writers have long known about the Zeigarnik effect and capitalised on it through the use of cliff-hangers. The term cliff-hanger stretches way back to 1873 and a serialised Thomas Hardy story, A Pair of Blue Eyes. At the end of a chapter, one of the protagonists, Henry Knight, is left literally dangling off a cliff.

Although first adopted in print, it’s TV writers who have mastered the technique. From Lost to Game of Thrones, cliff-hangers abound. The uncertainty means the show sticks in the audience’s mind and they tune in again as they crave the resolution. 

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The technique has also been used in TV ads, most famously by Nescafe Gold Blend. Between 1987 and 1993 McCann-Erickson created a series of 12 ads charting the ebb and flow of a relationship between Anthony Head (later of Buffy fame) and Sharon Maughan (Tricia Williams in Holby City).

Each ad ended on a cliff-hanger. Viewers were repeatedly teased as to whether their relationship was going to progress or fizzle out. Eventually, it concluded with a declaration of love.

To say the ads caught the attention of the public is an understatement. Amazingly, 30m tuned in to watch the finale which, like the others, had been trailed in the TV listings for days beforehand. The Sun even splashed the news on the front page. The success spawned a best-selling book and an album which reached number 3. In 2008, in a poll of 2,000 people, it was voted the most romantic ad ever – even though it had finished 15 years earlier.

Most importantly, Nescafe sales received a caffeine-like boost: up 20% within 18 months of the ads airing and up 70% by the time the campaign ended.

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An underexploited opportunity

The success of Nescafe begs the question, why isn’t this tactic more used by brands?

Perhaps because the success has been attributed to unrepeatable characteristics, such as the chemistry between the two actors. While that was undoubtedly important, Zeigarnik’s findings, which identified something fundamental about memory, suggests that the reasons extend beyond the actors.

So, is the Zeigarnik effect worth considering for your next ad? It might not guarantee quite the punch of The Sopranos ending, but a cliff-hanger is certainly one way to boost memorability.

While we’re on the topic of The Sopranos, in a 2019 interview the show’s creator David Chase dropped a pretty big clue to the meaning. But we haven’t got time to discuss that now. You’ll have find out in the next blog…

  • Richard-Shotton
    Richard Shotton
    Founder, Astroten, and author of The Choice Factory
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