Comparisons heighten drama

Before-and-after comparisons tend to catch my eye in magazines or ads. I’ve been thinking recently, why are before-and-afters so alluring? What draws the viewer in? Why do brands feature these photos?

In general, comparisons heighten drama, because they make the difference between two objects more apparent. Your mind skips over the part where the two items are similar, and will naturally focus on the point of difference. Comparisons direct your attention in an intentional way.

Before-and-afters are a specific type of comparisons, because it shows the same person/object over time.

The story of possibility

It changes with the product, but the story arc is this: you are the ‘before’ right now, but you COULD be the ‘after.’

Here is an old IKEA bookshelf. After these DIY instructions, it looks like a chic piece from West Elm.

Here are your sparse, sad eyelashes. After this mascara, lash volume is increased by 400x.

Here is a dull t-shirt. After using this detergent, notice how bright the fabric looks.

Here is a pale, squishy middle-aged man. After P90X, he now looks like a Division 1 athlete.

The story is 100% focused on the benefit by showing the final result.

You see the person at Point A, then you see them at their final destination of Point B. In the middle, there was probably a lot of struggle.

Rationally, you know that it takes persistent effort to get in shape…

But the back-to-back placement of the photos imply that instant gratification is possible. You see a photo of Day 0, and then Day 90.

What’s not in the photos is the grind. Continuing to work out when your body wants to give up.

A before-and-after photo only shows the final image of success. People love to fantasize about shortcuts and silver bullets.

All good stories involve conflict and change. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Before-and-afters show change. There is implied progress captured in the space between the frames, to reference Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. The implied progress is what makes the story human and relatable.

If an ad just showed a single image of an athletic person, the impact isn’t as great. When you see an overweight diabetic who became an Iron Man competitor, that’s when the story is impressive.

It’s the transformation and improvement over time — the sense of hope — that draws people in.

It gives you permission to dream.

Buying a lottery ticket lets you dream of what you’d do with the 8 million jackpot if you won.

Similarly, looking at before and after pictures lets you dream of being the person who experiences a jaw-dropping before and after.

Seeing a ‘before’ photo allows you to relate, to see yourself in those shoes. You can imagine being that person. If he can do it, so can I. Maybe I could be next. That’s a powerful sentiment.

If a brand’s product is the middle step to being the ‘after’ version of yourself, suddenly paying $19.50 seems like a no brainer.

Before-and-after photos appear objective.

Any piece of data can be manipulated to tell a certain story. Intellectually, we know that photos can be arranged, cropped, composed, and filtered.

But before-and-after photos have such a visceral pull showing a real close up of a real human being, that emotionally we believe that it’s real, because we want to believe.

Sure, the sample size could be ten people — yes, a popular skincare brand actually published statistics on their packaging citing this minuscule sample size.

Sure, the results may be atypical. The person photographed could be one out of 1,000 who had such an extreme and favorable outcome.

Sure, there could have been many other factors besides the product in question that contributed to why this person now looks like version 2.0 of themselves.

These are rational, logical points. When it comes to stories, though, they play on a whole other level. They tap into our emotions, insecurities, aspirations. Knowing the psychology behind before-and-afters helps, but we’ll likely still continue to be drawn to them, to imagine what our lives would be like if we were the ‘after’ version of ourselves.