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Mystery in Marketing

Liam Curley
Liam Curley
4 min read
Mystery in Marketing

Trivial Pursuit was due to launch at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York, attended by the industry's key decision-makers. The marketing team for the manufacturer, Selchow & Righter, had a familiar concern: would buyers make a point of visiting their stand?

Trivial Pursuit - A launch cloaked with mystery

Their most successful game, Scrabble, was an established product and now had little attraction. They needed to create 'buzz' in the weeks leading to the event.

The team decided to produce a series of teaser mailers, sent to hundreds of key buyers in the toy industry:

“the first mailing was sent in a small envelope, hand-addressed, with a real stamp and no return address. It contained a little card with the Trivial Pursuit logo and a random card from the game.” - Emanuel Rosen

Each card had a Trivial Pursuit style question. The second card followed the first, and again was sent from anonymous. Upon delivery of the third card, the sender's identity is revealed. At this point, Selchow & Righter received calls about the cards and the game itself, which even included some from buyers complaining that they hadn't received the mailers.

The team launch Trivial Pursuit at the Toy Fair, and their stand was inundated with visitors and a high number of orders. The campaign was a success, and the board game became one of the most successful of all time.[1]

We have a better recollection of incomplete tasks and messages

We all want to know how things end

Once engaged in a story or task, humans have an urge to see it through. Think how unsatisfying it would be to hear a joke without the punchline. Research has also proven that we have better recall of tasks or messages that are interrupted and left incomplete.

This concept was discovered in 1927 by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Our memory of a task improves when we are interrupted in the middle of completing the job and not allowed to complete it immediately. Zeigarnik concluded that the reason for this was the state of tension caused by our desire to finish what we begin.[2]

Good things come to those who...

Good things come to those who...

Further research in 1972 discovered that this was also true for advertising messages. Adverts delivered to the participant and interrupted before completion had better recall than adverts shown in full.[3]

It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want to increase recall and interest in your marketing campaigns, don't fill in all the blanks. Include a bit of ambiguity, leave something to the imagination.

At first, leave some parts of the puzzle missing

Complete the puzzle
“Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation.” - Maria Konnikova [4]

The Trivial Pursuit campaign demonstrates the power of mystery. The unmarked cards raised curiosity. By the time the third card has arrived, the recipient is desperate to know who is sending these cards for this new game. They're eagerly waiting for the next card to discover more.

Selchow & Righter could have gone straight in with a mailer that shared the cards and explained all, but that would have eliminated any tension and anticipation immediately.

Mystery is a tool that few marketers and entrepreneurs use because we're scared. Many of us deliver all features and facts about our product, in full, at the first opportunity, for fear that we won't get another chance to sell. Or, we hold nothing back because we presume that the customer makes every decision logically and only when all facts have been presented.

There is a time in the sales process when we need to provide a list of all the features, but it doesn't need to be at the phase when we're building awareness. Interest follows awareness, and the element of mystery is proven to be a fantastic ingredient to deliver that goal.


[1] This quote and story on the Trivial Pursuit campaign come from Emanuel Rosen in The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited - p.159-161

[2] “ON FINISHED AND UNFINISHED TASKS By Bluma Zeigarnik "Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen," Psychologische Forschung, 1927. 9 An intention implies not so much a predetermined opportunity.” (2009).

[3] James T. Heimbach and Jacob Jacoby (1972) ,"The Zeigarnik Effect in Advertising", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 746-758.

[4] The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time by Maria Konnikova, Page 6.