Why Inception is the greatest ever movie about Marketing

It is almost impossible to change someone’s mind when you confront them in an argument. To change people’s mind, the art of convincing, is much more effectively done by leading the horse to water. 


By making them feel like it was their idea


Inception, the 2010 sci-fi film by Christopher Nolan follows a mischievous group who try to convince man called Robert Fischer (played by Cilian Murphy) to dissolve his dying father’s company. 


But they must convince him that it is his idea, and to do this, they infiltrate his subconscous. 


The journey deep into Robert’s mind


What I love about Inception is that it communicates the process of marketing very visually, going deep into the subconscious of our target. In the outer world, this is usually what we call a ‘customer’. 


I think of marketing a different way though – I see the sharing of any idea or frame-of-mind as marketing. Leaders have to market a vision of the future that doesn’t exist yet to supporters, and romantic couples have to market points-of-view to one another constantly. 


In Inception, the complexities of this deep journey are explored within Robert. It is so nuanced that the characters penetrate something close to five levels of dreams-within-dreams


This shows us how deep we have to go to lead someone to an idea through their own logic, in a way that makes sense to them mentally, spiritually and emotionally. 


No one wants a nail. 


To give a famous example from marketing guru Seth Godin, nobody who buys a nail wants a nail


They want to put the shelf on the wall. But nobody wants the shelf on the wall. 


What they want is a clean garage or shed, a space that is organised and without clutter. But no one wants a clean garage


That gets no one out of bed in the morning. No, what they really want is the feeling of putting things in order


And even deeper than that, people want their family to see that they put things in order! Buying a nail can be traced to something as meaningful as human connection and impression. 


No one wants to dissolve their father’s company?


Here is a short video of the tipping point in the movie, where Robert thinks he decides of his own accord that he should dissolve the company. 


How is this experience encoded? It is made meaningful and emotional to him. The ‘marketers’ in this film place Robert beside his father’s deathbed, and facilitate a meaningful interaction. Robert’s relationship with his father is clearly strained. 


“I know… you’re disappointed” (in me, failing to be like you) Robert says, and seems to believe. But in this sub-dream, the father’s strings are pulled to give an alternative perspective:


“I’m disappointed you tried”. 


Robert weeps as he is hit by an epiphany, and the resolution of a relationship that has impeded his journey through life. He is liberated by the instruction of his father to forge his own path and legacy, rather than dwindling in his role-model’s shadow. 


Now the important question – is Inception a positive-sum, win-win game? 


This level of manipulation seems totally uncalled for. The implicated characters all have their personal, selfish reasons for playing this elaborate gag on Robert. 


Saito, the business-partner of Robert’s father wants the company dissolved for his own financial motives. Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, takes on the job for Saito to get his record wiped clean and be able to return home to his family. 


It seems cruel then to pull Robert’s strings in this way. Or is it? 


Does Robert also win? 


Does finally being liberated from trying to follow in his father’s shadow, free to forge his own destiny, and resolving the tense father-son relationship, actually resemble a loss? 


Yet still, we don’t feel right about it. We feel Robert had been deceived, that he has been given a placebo, and that this interaction isn’t real, that it isn’t the truth. Here we enter murky waters – but maybe the ends justifies the means. 


This all comes back to using the powers of marketing and inception for good, not for bad. For creating a win for all parties – if you’re going to sell something, even if it is just a nail, to do it more powerfully by creating an experience for customers and people. 


Yes, maybe the magic is all in their head, be it the customer, the followers, or our friends and family. But I think we find the wisdom to address this in the below quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. 


Then you can decide if the way to persuade someone to dissolve their father’s company is to sit down and argue about it ‘logically’, or to create this solution as a meaningful outcome and experience for them. 


[At Kings Cross Station in limbo]


“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”


Who do you think of when you read this? Would this ‘open a door’ for someone you know? Share it with them, for their sake and yours. 

The best way to open a thousand doors for you is to open doors for others you already know.


With Joe Wehbe – The Podcast

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