Dip to White: Breaking Through with TV Spots Appeal to the Elephant and the Rider

It’s evening, the room is dark, the TV is on, and you’re staring at anything but your TV. Your smartphone. Your dinner. Your child.  So on autopilot are you that your actions are only half conscious at best, but suddenly something—you might not even be sure what—draws your attention back to the TV. Luckily, you tune in just in time to see a beautiful video of a nearby college, and now you’re thinking about going back to school.

There’s a chance that what caught your attention was a dip to white.

Not to be confused with the more commonly used transition fade to black, the dip to white is an evolution of best practice TV tactics used to draw attention away from competing objects and back to the TV. Flooding the room with light, while transitioning between shots, is an easy way to drive more pairs of eyes to a video message and increase the effectiveness of the ad. If the ultimate goal of a TV ad is to lead the audience to inquiry, higher ed marketers are charged with both corralling attention and persuading the audience to action. By strategically placing a dip to white at the beginning and end of a TV spot, you’re increasing the chance of capturing your audience’s attention and compelling them to act.

And when you think about it, it takes a pretty motivated person to respond to a TV ad. A person must stop what she is doing and open up her computer or pick up her phone, all while in the throes of another activity. Or, responding could entail that a person write down the information in the moment then attend to the call-to-action at a later time when he is no longer busy. Inherent in both of those scenarios are many opportunities to lose a person’s interest and motivation to act. Yet TV ads have been an important tool in a marketer’s arsenal for as long as they’ve been around. So what’s the secret to setting the conditions for action from a TV ad? The elephant and the rider.

Enter, the Elephant and the Rider

The dip to white tactic is just the beginning of the story. Underlying the tactic lurks an interesting insight about human behavior and decision making, articulated by the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. This metaphor, coined by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, reveals how people (think prospective students) make decisions based on two main internal processes:  automatic, habitual, instinctive reactions (the elephant); and conscious reasoning (the rider). Just as the dip to white provides the flash and the message provides the substance, the elephant determines the direction of a decision and the rider builds a case for that direction. And the image conjured by this metaphor alludes to which of the two is mostly in charge.

The elephant and rider metaphor is based on the psychological theory of Affective Primacy. The basic premise of Affective Primacy is that all of us are subject to micro reactions that happen quickly and constantly as we navigate this world. Affective Primacy is beautifully explained in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. To expand on this concept, let’s turn to Dr. Haidt:

“This effect is called ‘affective priming’ because [the stimulus] triggers a flash of affect that primes the mind to go one way or another. Affect mean[s] small flashes of positive or negative feeling that prepare us to approach or avoid something… [and] it has primacy both because it happens first (it is part of perception and is therefore extremely fast) and because it is more powerful (it is closely linked to motivation, and therefore it strongly influences behavior).”

These micro reactions are much more indelible than we’d like to think—though often occurring beneath our level of perception, our habitual and emotional reactions carry massive weight in how we make decisions and judgments. The sheer size and weight of the elephant often leave the rider seeking only to add information to justify the elephant’s path rather than actually directing it. Or, put more eloquently by Haidt, “If the elephant leans even slightly to the left, as though preparing to take a step, the rider looks to the left and starts preparing to assist the elephant on its imminent leftward journey.” So sorry to say, but the bulk of our behavior and decisions are dictated by our automatic, habitual, and instinctive reactions.

The problem with—or if you’re keen to the notion, the opportunity in—affective primacy is that there’s an extremely short amount of time, roughly a 200-millisecond flash, in which you can influence how a message is interpreted. And because this judgment happens so quickly, we often mobilize our thinking mind to justify the feelings we’re already feeling. From our most instinctive self come instantaneous determinations of whether or not to approach or avoid, to accept and favor a message or to criticize or condemn it.

After the Dip to white

So now you’ve armed your video with a dip to white, a flash to catch your audience’s attention, if even for a moment. What will you then do to create a positive or negative micro reaction for your audience? If we look to this utilization of a sister tactic to the dip to white (one technically called a lens flare) by the marketing juggernaut Apple, we can see how positive micro reactions can be conjured by images and messages. And luckily, the field of higher education does not want for emotionality. When your entire mission hinges around improving people’s lives through education, your audience needs you. They need to know you can be a catalyst for their personal growth and development, that you can make their life better. Get your audience’s elephants to lean toward you by quickly appealing to their emotions, then empower their thinking brains with the information needed to justify their feelings.

It’s evening, the TV is on, and your audience is doing other things. They’re on autopilot, in the throes of their evening routines. That is, until their room is illuminated by a message that can help change their lives. By capturing the attention of the elephant and the rider, your message can help prospective students turn the flash of their screen into their day in the sun.


This post originally appeared on the Inside Higher Ed’s Call to Action blog on September 1, 2016 

Seth Odell

Seth Odell brings his award winning creative talent from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to Helix Education as the General Manager of Marketing Services. While at SNHU, Seth was responsible for concepting, writing, and art directing SNHU’s national advertising efforts, including its heralded 2013 cross-country bus tour campaign. Now at Helix Education, Seth collaborates closely with colleges and universities to develop their brands, craft meaningful messages, and deliver integrated, results-driven campaigns.