Before I dive into this post, I want to confess something. I am not a sports fan. My mom was the kind of fan that wouldn’t walk out of the room for fear her team (the Dallas Cowboys) would start losing without her. Me, I was more interested in the commercials. I didn’t mind watching football with her, but it never grabbed me. But I’ve always held a fascination with why so many people devote so much time to sports. How is it that a simple game, the outcome of which has zero bearing on real life, can command so much attention?

The answer to that question will make you a better marketer. Where attention leads, advertising follows. Companies are willing to pay insane amounts of money to get in front of that audience. The superbowl is the place for advertisers to show off their most creative work. A Sundance for sports, if you will. Last year the NFL had nearly $15 billion in revenue and the trend has been going up steadily every year. What’s the secret? And how you can you harness that secret for your next marketing project?

Nesting the Question

Football (and most sports) are designed in a way that they fully utilized the single most important storytelling element. The thing that grabs and keeps our unwavering attention. It’s called the binary question. It’s a loop that when opened, our brains won’t rest until we find out the resolution, closing the loop. I’ve written about it before in the realm of reality tv, but it’s so evident in sports, you can’t miss it, once you’re looking for it.

Let’s take a look at a play from the 2019 Super Bowl, summary courtesy of USA Today.

Super Bowl 2019

QB Tom Brady lofts a pass during the 2019 Super Bowl.

With the game still tied in the middle of the fourth quarter, New England needed a scoring drive to get itself in position to claim its sixth Super Bowl title. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady carved up the Rams on the first three plays of the series, getting down to the Rams’ 31-yard line with 7:43 left in the game. On a second-and-3, tight end Rob Gronkowski scampered past Rams linebacker Cory Littleton and gained a small cushion. Brady floated a perfectly-placed pass in between a gap of three L.A. defenders…

Let’s start on the macro level. Your team starts the season. The question is, will they be able to pull off a championship win this year? Will they have what it takes to overcome all the obstacles and claim the ultimate prize? Now jump down a level to the first game. Will your team be able to defeat their rival, getting them one step closer to the championship? Now down to a single play in that game? Will your team be able to drive ahead and make the first down? Will they be able to score a touch down, or will the other team stop them? Go one level deeper, when the everyone is lined up, waiting for the QB to say hike. Only he knows when that will happen, everyone else is waiting to find out. A micro-binary question. 

If that weren’t enough already, at any moment there could be a fumble, an interception or some unexpected injury. Those factors make us even more alert, focusing 100% of our brain’s available attention on the game. Need to use the restroom, it can wait. Kids need something? They can wait. Need more wings or another beer? That too can wait. 

What is going on in our brains that would completely hi-jack our attention like that? We know that cliff-hanger type stories like what we see in every single play of a football game, put us on the edge of our seats. They make us stand up, even pace around! That’s because of the hormone dopamine. Dopamine has some powerful effects on the human body. It increases our ability to focus. And it motivates us to be ready for action. That’s one of the reasons we stand up when the action gets intense. Our body is ready for action!

Side Note: Gronkowski caught that ball that Brady put in the air, which put New England at the 2-yard line.

Will my team win the championship this year?
Will my team be able to beat their rival?
Will my team score a touchdown?
Will my team call the right play?
Will my quarterback hike the football at the right time?

Illustration by our very own, Marin Herold.

The nested binary question structure of football, and most sports, makes it the ideal attention getting mechanism. With every down, a new binary question demands an answer. With each first down, that question resolves and opens the next question (the new down). Carry that on until the game resolves, and you’re back thinking about the season. Will they make it to the championship?

Add in long standing rivalries (we love to hate a worthy opponent!), a vast array of traditions, and food, and you have the recipe for something big. Not to mention the personal stories of key athletes and coaches. It’s no wonder the NFL is able to rake in more billions every single year. If the continuous growing trend continues this year, the NFL will make more than $16 billion in revenue. If it weren’t for arsenal of binary questions embedded into the very fabric of the game, that figure wouldn’t be possible. They’re in the attention-for-sale business, and they’re crushing it.

How do I use the Binary Question in Marketing?

What does this mean for telling your next story in a marketing context? Well, if it’s not painfully obvious already, you need a binary question. What is it that your character wants so bad, and what are the obstacles keeping them from getting it? Think through your story with that lens so you can make sure it’s clear to your audience what’s at stake. The more powerful the question, the more dopamine and thus the more attention. 

You can use this in telling a long-form story of course, like an article or testimonial video. But you can also use it in creating a headline, designing a graphic or choosing an image for your next blog post. Think about opening a loop that can’t be ignored until you find out what happened. Then don’t let your audience know the result until you’ve gotten your message across.

At StoryDriven, we use the binary question in every video we make. We highlight our clients who are doing great things in the world, utilizing their greatest asset, their story, to further their mission. 

Now, may the best team win!

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    After the superbowl is over, we’re going to analyze the top story-driven commercials from the event. By subscribing to our newsletter, you’ll be one of the first to see the post. After that you’ll continue to get inspiring content as we highlight great things.

As you watch the Superbowl this year, see what other binary questions you can spot? And let us know in the comments below. Who will be the first to comment? (See what I did there? Couldn’t resist.)


About Nathan Clendenin

Nathan's purpose in life is to encourage and inspire others. His vision is a world of people sharing their gifts with others. His mission is to tell inspiring stories so others will become their own inspiring story.

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