Blockbuster movies are frequently based on a high concept story idea that has been well developed by a team of talented screenwriters. The term high concept is relevant to marketing and advertising and is especially relevant to broadcast commercials and the videos that circulate in their wake. The definition of the term high concept is elusive. Jeff Lyons of Script online magazine wrote,
"High concept is about essence; that visceral thing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. From a writing perspective, a story idea that is high concept captures the reader’s or viewer’s imagination, excites their senses, get’s them asking 'what if,' and sparks them to start imagining the story even before they have read a word. High concept drives the commercial book business, as well as the film and television industries." ~ Jeff Lyons, Script
Frustrated by the inarticulate attempts at defining the notion of a high-concept idea, Jeff Lyons developed a comprehensive definition of a high-concept idea that also serves as a gauge by which ideas can be evaluated.
The 7 Qualities of a High-Concept Idea™ outlined by Jeff Lyons are as follows:
- High level of entertainment value
- High degree of originality
- High level of uniqueness (different than original)
- Highly visual
- Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
- Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
- Sparks a “what if” question
Applying the 7 Qualities of a High-Concept Idea to Advertising
The attributes or qualities of a high concept idea can be treated like indicators by a creative marketing or advertising team or by a market researcher who is interested in gaining consumer insights about the perceptions of high-concept ideas. Videos of commercials that go viral typically exhibit several of the seven qualities that Lyons has emphasized, such as entertainment value, originality, emotionality, universality, and highly visual content.
Entertainment Value - Identifying the entertainment value-ad of a television commercial or an online video is generally not difficult. A key indicator of the entertainment value of an ad is the number of shares that the ad garners.
Originality - Fresh, innovative approaches to an idea (even if the idea itself is not new) exhibit an original slant or perspective. Experts on writing are often quoted as saying that no story is truly original and that stories are fundamentally re-telling of familiar or known stories. Indeed, the familiarity of a storyline may be what makes it feel relevant.
Uniqueness - The power of uniqueness is that it offers a first-ever look at something and evokes an appreciation for the one-of-a-kind nature of the idea. Lyons wrote that "being unique transcends even originality" and lends a sense of incomparability to the idea or the execution.
Highly Visual - The visual quality of some commercials is unmistakable as it generates images and plays out in a cinematic manner in the minds of viewers or readers. A highly visual story inevitably unfolds in a compelling display of imagery that is nearly always associated with high-concept ideas.
Clear Emotional Focus - The emotions triggered by high-concept ideas are primal, and there is no mistaking them for less engaging, less intense emotions. Primal emotions include anger, fear, happiness, hate, jealousy, joy, love, rage, sorrow, and the like. Lyons emphasizes that when an idea has a clear emotional focus, "the involvement is strong, immediate, and intense."
Universal or Wide Appeal - High-concept ideas appeal to a broad, diverse general audience or a large but specific niche market. The drivers of high-concept ideas are popularity, mass-appeal, edgy, or trendy.
Stems from “What If” Question - A scenario that entails a "what if" orientation serves as a hook to catch and keep the attention of the viewer or reader. Typically, the hook is the most original or unique aspect of the high-concept idea.
Lyons, J. (2015, June 20). Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success. Focal Press.
Lyons, J. (2012, October 30). Story Talk: High Concept—Yes—It Actually Means Something! Script (Division of The Writers Store).