The story of performance enhancing drugs is a well established cultural story. Be it either the Olympics, the Tour de France or Major League Baseball, using drugs to gain a competitive edge is a story that society tells us we shouldn’t live by. The incredibly unlikable Barry Bonds and his current trial has brought this never-ending story back to the forefront.
With the advent of the movie Limitless, we’re reminded of a related cultural story: Drugs that make you smarter.
This cultural story seems to capture people’s imagination in a positive way. Evidence suggests that lots of people want a smart pill to “live this way.”
We first heard about students using drugs to help them concentrate and perform better academically in this New Yorker article (April 27, 2009). The article was mostly about the use of Adderall among ambitious students.
Ginko biloba continues to sell well to those who want to improve their memory. Some believe it can make you sharper.
Glaceau’s Vitamin Water is marketed around different functional benefits. Its sister brand Smartwater by association seems to allude to some kind of functional mental benefit (although it doesn’t overtly suggest such a claim).
We like how the producers of Limitless tried to tap this cultural story by producing “real” ads for its fictional brain enhancing drug NZT. Here’s an ad in which Richard Branson explains the secret to his success:
Unfortunately they just couldn’t leave the movie out of the ad. It would have been much better if the response was “I don’t know if that’s real or not.”
Same goes for some of the interesting stuff they mailed to bloggers and reviewers to build excitement about the movie. They didn’t have enough faith in the potential for buzz to leave the movie clips out of it.
We have a tool called “The Media Benefits Tool” that would have helped them understand that using an unbranded story can capture people’s imaginations in a way that would have added interest to the movie once the movie was officially launched. Fake NZT ads and PR stories would have gotten people wondering if the drug was real. This would have gotten people thinking and talking about the prospect of a drug that makes you smarter (e.g. Should it be legal?, is it safe?, how would I change?, etc.). It would have created a better cultural conversation.
We haven’t seen the movie but are interested in it because the “smart drugs” story is an interesting one to live by.