The fundamental things apply here, too

Advertising creatives are inherently skeptical about the claims of researchers that they can measure what’s important in good creative work. To be sure, most creatives will admit it may be possible to measure the surface meaning of an ad—the message communication—because that’s the part that’s easy for an audience to play back in words. But a good story well told, a good performance well acted, a good film well made—all of these do their real work below the surface meaning of things. That’s where the magic really happens. But fifty years of traditional copytesting has taught an unfortunate lesson to the creative community: that research cannot quantify the deeper, emotional content of great creative work.

For that reason, creatives have turned to peer review to validate the quality of their work, so that award shows count for more than research metrics in the eyes of the people who actually create ads. Their position is that the esthetic judgment of an experienced creative director cannot be replicated with audience research data.

We put this assumption to the test by comparing in detail the way a master storyteller analyzes a Hollywood masterpiece with the emotional engagement metrics produced by the online Ameritest pre-testing system. Using the same visual diagnostics that we use to test television commercials, we conducted research on the famous Bazaar scene, the mid-act climax of the classic film Casablanca. We wanted to answer the question, “Does our quantitative research data support the creative theory of the screen writing master, Robert McKee?”

Robert McKee is a writer’s writer. The best-selling author of the book Story, McKee is the most widely known and respected screenwriting lecturer in the world today. His former students’ accomplishments are unmatched: they have won 32 Academy Awards, 168 Emmy Awards, 21 Writers Guild of America Awards, 17 Directors Guild of America Awards and even a Pulitzer Prize for writing.

Casablanca is one of the great movies, generally ranking as one of the top five greatest films of all time. It won three Oscars in 1942: Best Picture; Best Director; and Best Writing. From a research standpoint it is a good subject because even though the movie is famous, as an older black and white film it is relatively easy to find modern audiences who have not actually seen the movie.

In his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting McKee provides a beat-by-beat analysis of several key scenes from Casablanca, including one of the major turning points of the movie, the Bazaar scene. Serendipitously, McKee’s published theory of the movie provides us with the makings of an interesting scientific experiment.

From a scientific standpoint, this in-depth interpretation of the film by a screenwriting master provides us with a theoretical prediction of how, from a creative perspective, the audience is expected to respond moment-by-moment to what is going on in the Bazaar scene. Empirically, we could put McKee’s theory to the test by measuring actual reactions to the film among an audience of first-time viewers.

In his deconstruction of the Bazaar scene, McKee takes us through five steps of critical analysis:

1. Define the conflict driving the emotional content of the scene;

2. Note the opening emotional value of the scene;

3. Break the scene into beats, which are the fundamental units of film structure;

4. Note the closing emotional value and compare to the opening value;

5. Survey the beats and locate the turning point of the scene.

Importantly, these same five steps of critical thinking can be applied to the analysis of television commercials, web videos or other types of ad film.

The first step, defining the conflict, is key to understanding how film works as a storytelling medium, for without conflict there can be no story. For the Bazaar scene, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) initiates and drives the scene. Despite inner conflict over the pain he has suffered since Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) abandoned him in Paris, and the anger he suppresses at seeing her with another man, Rick’s desire is clear: to win Ilsa Back!

The source of conflict is equally clear: Ilsa. Her feelings are very complex and clouded by mixed emotions of guilt, regret and duty. She loves Rick passionately and would take him back if she could, but for reasons only she knows, she can’t. Caught between irreconcilable needs, Ilsa’s desire can be phrased as “To keep her affair with Rick in the past and move on with her life.” Although entangled with inner conflicts, their desires are thus in direct opposition.

As a second step in analysis, we identify the underlying emotional value at stake in the opening of the scene, the emotional keynote upon which this part of the story plays. For this scene, love is the governing value. In the preceding scene, Rick’s insulting behavior toward Ilsa turned the value toward the negative, yet the Bazaar scene opens on a positive note because the audience and Rick see a ray of hope. In the previous scenes Ilsa has been addressed as “Miss Ilsa Lund,” a single woman. Rick hopes to change that.

The third step in analysis involves breaking the scene down into “beats,” that McKee describes as the fundamental units of film structure. McKee deconstructs the Bazaar scene into eleven beats. Just as in music, the rhythmic structure of film is essential for the audience to make sense of information that is presented over time. The beat drives our expectations, creates anticipation and cues the moments when we should pay close attention to what is going on. The back-and-forth of the dialogue and the body language between the two characters in the scene carries the audience forward emotionally as new information is revealed, that gives us new glimpses of insight into what is really going on in the story.

This brings us to the fourth step in analysis, in which we note the closing emotional value of the scene and compare it to the opening value. While the scene opens on a hopeful positive note, the scene closes on a darkly negative note. Rick’s hopes have been crushed as Ilsa makes clear that she doesn’t love him now, and implies that she never did. She has revealed that she was secretly married to Victor Laslo so that her affair with Rick in Paris was a sham. These are darker depths than Rick could have imagined.

The purpose of this fourth step of analysis is to determine the emotional movement that has taken place from the beginning to the end of a scene—that’s the “motion” in emotion. In theory, the movement can be from positive to negative, from negative to positive, or even from a negative to a double negative. What is important is understanding what has changed emotionally from the beginning to the end of the scene, since that is the net emotional content communicated by the film.

This change in emotion is the essence of storytelling. As McKee points out, if there is a scene in a movie where the emotions are the same at the end of a scene as at the beginning, the scene doesn’t belong in the movie since nothing has happened from an emotional standpoint. It should be edited out. This focus on emotional movement is what distinguishes the storytelling form of advertising from other forms of advertising presentations, in which the sequence of emotions may simply be one positive after another. Though certainly the negative-to-positive is a time-tested approach for advertising, and one we have analyzed repeatedly in our years of research.

The last or fifth step in the analysis is to survey the beats and locate the turning point of the story. As we see in McKee’s analysis, the action and reaction pattern between the characters builds a rapid progression of beats in this scene. In emotional intensity, each exchange tops the previous beat, placing their love in greater and greater risk, demanding more and more will power of each person, and demanding the capacity to take painful, even cruel actions, but at the same time remain in cool control. At the end of the eighth beat, a gap opens between what the audience expects to happen and what does happen. Audience emotions begin to turn decidedly negative as Ilsa goes on to crush Rick by revealing her secret. Until this moment, Rick has hopes of winning her over, but with this turning point, his hope is shattered.

This, then, is Robert McKee’s theoretical analysis of a key scene from Casablanca and his moment-by-moment predictions of how the audience is expected to respond emotionally. To experimentally test this theory we conducted online interviews with a sample of 100 general population adult respondents who had not previously seen the movie. To measure the audience’s emotional responses, we used two of our standard pre-testing diagnostic tools, the Flow of Attention® and the Flow of Emotion®.

The Flow of Attention graph, part of which is shown in Exhibit 1, is constructed by having respondents sort pictures from a film based on whether or not they remember seeing that image in the film. It is a researcher’s tool for measuring and visualizing the beat of film from the point of view of what stands out in the attention of the audience. What we found in our research is that the eleven beats identified by McKee correspond quite well with the eleven peak moments identified by the Flow of Attention.


The Flow of Attention is a measure of pre-conscious filtering or selective perception, which is a process driven by unconscious emotions. In taking the sample of visuals from Casablanca for our research, you might note that, at first glance, many of the pictures look similar. But on closer inspection you will see that the differences can be quite subtle, reflecting the difference of a raised eyebrow, a sideways glance, a curled lip. It turns out that the unconscious mind is quite fast and accurate in reading the non-verbal emotions expressed by our faces. And this simple picture-sorting tool is sensitive enough to measure them and reveal the rhythmic structure of how the brain takes in visual information.

The beat of film structure described by McKee, therefore, should be thought of, not just in terms of the snappy dialogue, but also needs to take into account the visual exchanges signaling the emotions in the movie. In the case of the Bazaar scene, the visual beat of the film is well-synchronized with the beat of the dialogue so that we can identify eleven beats in the scene either way.

Our second picture sort, the Flow of Emotion graph, is a tool for visualizing the positive and negative feelings that the audience becomes conscious of as they watch the movie. It is constructed by having respondents sort the set of images they remember from the movie a second time, on a positive-to-negative scale of the feelings that they had while they were watching each moment in the movie.

In a wide variety of research-on research validation studies we have conducted for clients and for the Advertising Research Foundation, we found a strong correlation between the two picture sorting measures and a number of biometric methods. These biometric methods are currently popular for studying audience engagement with advertising experimentally, including brain waves, facial response, skin conductance and heart rates.

However, there are two key differences between the Ameritest Picture Sorts® and these other scientific methods. First, these flow graphs are based on picture sorting on a computer screen and therefore is the only one of these non-verbal methods of measuring emotional engagement that can be done online. Second, the Flow of Emotion is the only approach that can determine the valence of audience emotions. That is, whether the feelings evoked by a moment in a piece of film are positive or negative. Biometric approaches are only able to measure total engagement, but not the sign of the emotions that are aroused.

It is from the creative tension between positive and negative emotions that dramatic energy or conflict arises. In the words of McKee, “Put another way, conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music.”

In Exhibit 2 we see the overall emotional structure of the Bazaar scene, which reflects the dramatic design of the scene. Both positive and negative emotions are present throughout, as shown by the two colored lines in the graph, illustrating the emotional tension from the beginning to the end of the scene.


In the first four beats of the scene, positive emotions are dominant, reflecting the hopeful positive expectations the audience has about what is going to happen. Then in the middle four beats, tension increases so that positive and negative emotions are nearly equal as tension builds toward a climactic moment. At this stage audience feelings are undergoing what scientists would call a “phase transition,” from one emotion state to another. Then, on the eighth beat of the scene, when the definitive statement made by Ilsa to Rick (that they’ll never get together), audience feelings shift decidedly to the negative as this mid-act climax ends the movie on the dark note that all hope for Rick’s love is lost.

If we zoom in on the Flow of Emotion in Exhibit 3, we can see even more detail by looking at McKee’s analysis juxtaposed with the research data. In this chart we can look at the text of the dialogue and, parenthetically, the interpretation of the subtext of what is really going on.


At the beginning of the encounter between Ilsa and Rick at the vendor’s stall, we the audience are siding with Ilsa: last night and Rick’s awful behavior are fresh in our minds and we are looking forward to seeing him grovel and apologize. However, during the initial phase of the interaction, with the help of the vendor (who acts as a mirror of Rick’s intentions) we come to realize that Ilsa and Rick are truly, genuinely in love. We realize there is much more going on than what we see on the surface. We begin to care about them as a couple and are hopeful for a positive outcome of this encounter: he’ll apologize, she’ll accept his apology and they will live happily ever after.

Thus, we begin to be very emotionally engaged with the scene, reacting strongly to their every glance, every word and movement. This is a moment of emotional transference, where our initial feelings are changed by the characters’ words and actions. Then there comes a moment of truth—an emotional pivot in beat 8—where Ilsa states that they will never see each other again.
This is when our overall emotional response to the story changes from being mostly positive, with occasional bursts of negativity, to over-whelming negative. We feel strongly for both the characters and for their relationship and are very sad that there will be no happily ever after for Rick and Ilsa as a couple.

With this analysis, we can now see how well theory and experiment fit together. All five stages of McKee’s method of analysis can be verified with research data. The structural beat of the film, the intensity and sign of emotional content, the turning point of the scene that McKee described, all correspond quite nicely with what the research measures.

McKee offers his method of analysis to other writers as a way of making explicit that which they do intuitively, so they can go back after the creative heat of the first draft is over and edit their work, and polish it to make it better. These concepts help define what experienced creatives mean when they say a piece of work “feels right.” That right feeling also represents a prediction that the audience will respond to the finished work the way the creative intends.

As we can see in the case of McKee’s analysis, his prediction of how an audience would respond to the Bazaar scene was right on. This is good news for researchers, because it also means we have direct evidence that we can measure something that truly matters to how creatives view their work.

Our strongest hope for this research is that it chips away at the walls that confrontational, rational-based pass/fail advertising research systems have built among the creative community as it has sought—and rightfully so—to protect its work. Research is not going away, nor should it. As Robert McKee himself makes clear in his workshops around the world, creativity is not done in a vacuum and ultimately must work out in the world, with an audience. When it comes to advertising, this is even more so. As procurement pressures mount, and ROI remains the mantra at brands around the world, creatives will find their truest research allies are those who conduct brand and advertising research that respects the emotional element so critical to the creative process.

As Robert McKee himself exclaimed upon seeing the research on one of his most beloved films…it is indeed “beautiful” when science and art can come together to support, and not destroy, the creative process.