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This is a great video featuring J.J. Abrams mystery box.  It is about the core of what keeps us seeking and the power of the enigma.  It is one of my all time favorite marketing video’s, however the J.J. Abrams mystery box can also become Pandora’s box …


JJ Abrams Mystery BoxIn this Ted Talk about J.J. Abrams Mystery Box, a magic box Abrams got from his grandfather, young Abrams finds an early moment of eureka which he builds much of his career off of.  He discovers that not knowing what is in the box, is more valuable (or powerful) than whatever could be in the box.

J.J. Abrams goes on to explain movies he grew up loving in terms of the mystery box …

“In terms of the content of it, you look at stories, you think, well, what are stories but mystery boxes?  There’s a fundamental question — in TV, the first act is called the teaser.  It’s literally the teaser. It’s the big question.  So you’re drawn into it. Then of course, there’s another question. And it goes on and on.

Look at ‘Star Wars.’  You got the droids; they meet the mysterious woman.  Who’s that?  We don’t know. Mystery box! You know?  Then you meet Luke Skywalker. He gets the Droid, you see the holographic image.  You learn, oh, it’s a message, you know.  She wants to find Obi Wan Kenobi. He’s her only hope.  But who the hell’s Obi Wan Kenobi? Mystery box!  So then you go and he meets Ben Kenobi. Ben Kenobi is Obi Wan Kenobi.  Holy shit!

So there’s this thing with mystery boxes that I started feeling compelled.  Then there’s the thing of mystery in terms of imagination — the withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging.”

J.J. Abrams Mystery Box

This is an intriguing way to look at enigma and the human desire to understand.  That a mystery can compel someone to follow you or your brand is very tempting.  After working with this marketing strategy for several years, I will caution you from experience, this can be a double edged sword.  Let’s read that last part again …


“withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging.”

J.J. Abrams is not saying the mystery box can be more engaging.  Abrams is saying it IS much more engaging.  Those are two very different things.  To understand what I mean let’s switch over to another classic story about a mystery box.

In the story of Pandora’s Box, Zeus provides Pandora to be married to Prometheus, and in doing so provides a box as a wedding gift of sorts to Prometheus.  It is locked and he tells him never to open the box.  Well in true Adam and Eve fashion, Pandora wants to know what is in the box, but he won’t let her open it.  She starts thinking about it more and more, but he still says no.  Finally she is so worked up over what could possibly be in the box that she waits until Prometheus is asleep, steals the key, and goes to open the mystery box.

Now at this point, it does not matter what is in this box.  Pandora is so worked up on curiosity, that almost anything that can be in the box will not live up to the  anticipation and creativity of her imagination.

Of course Pandora opens the box, and releases every known evil upon the world.  Much like the 6th season of J.J. Abrams “Lost” TV Series, which could never meet the years of anticipation users had been dreaming up what was in the box, or in this case island.

When we lead people with mystery to follow our messaging, and not live up to expectations, it can easily turn into a nightmare of undesired outcomes.  Things like this can lead to unrealistic product expectations, lower end funnel conversion rates, and swarms of angry user reviews.

In conclusion, the J.J. Abrams Mystery Box technic is fun, and when done right, can be very affective.  However, use with caution, as it could release evils into your world.

Have you used the mystery box technic to market your product or service?  I would love to hear about successes or issues you have had with it.

Kyle Wahlquist

Kyle is an Organic Channel Growth Leader and SEO Expert within Credera, who in his 14-year career in eCommerce and digital marketing enablement has worked for some of the fastest growing and largest companies in North America. Kyle is a polymath, or someone who likes to learn a lot about a lot of different areas. He combines many different disciplines to explore new ways to approach challenges and solve problems.

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