The feeling of suspense is related to mystery but with one main difference—suspense is highly emotional. Not only is it emotional, but the emotion doesn’t subside after the suspenseful moment has passed on screen.

The late, great movie director Alfred Hitchcock once described the difference between mystery and suspense as this:

“Mystery is an intellectual process. Suspense is an emotional process.”

Suspenseful feelings can be either positive or negative—videos that include everything from romance to thrilling scenes can cause you to cringe in suspense. Maybe your favorite character dies and you feel sad, or the couple you were hoping would get together finally decides to tie the knot and you feel happy.

Both events are suspenseful, and marketers can learn from how both types of suspenseful events affect the viewer.

Marketers: This is what makes a video suspenseful.

Chicago-based marketing researcher, Linda Alwitt, ran several studies to understand the power of suspense and the specific characteristics that make a video suspenseful. In these studies, she defines suspense as ‘the alternation of hope and fear as the narrative unfolds.’

She discovered that suspenseful videos are more likely to have the following characteristics:

  • A conflict between people
  • Time pressure
  • Moral questions
  • Music that creates feelings of suspense
  • Uncertainty about the outcome
  • A surprising ending

Screenwriting master, Robert McKee talks about similar video characteristics in a Harvard Business Review interview.

For marketers looking to encourage action from consumers, implementing these aspects of suspense psychology into your videos could be effective—and what’s more, your audience won’t be bored.

Alwitt also uncovered that suspense not only makes us feel strong emotion, but the emotions are so powerful that time passes for them more quickly—viewers feel suspenseful videos are shorter than non-suspenseful videos.

This is how marketers are using these tactics today.

Ads broadcast during much-anticipated sporting games—such as the UEFA Champions League Final—are a great example of suspense in marketing. At a time and place where viewers are already in suspense as the big game unfolds, marketers can use this to their advantage.

Every brand can incorporate suspense into their videos, no matter what their product, if they’re thinking creatively. This KFC commercial is a great example of how a brand can use suspense to capture the viewer’s attention.

They’re using a horror film-esque style that includes flickering images and flashing black and red lights, together with suspenseful music. The ad cleverly addresses the chicken shortage KFC suffered earlier this year, which led to the temporary closure of 600 stores.

At the peak of suspense, your emotional reaction rises, but so does your attention.

High attention is the main reason advertisers should use suspense in their video ads. This brings about a stronger memory of the ad, which is great for any advertisers who are looking for brand awareness.

Putting suspense to the test.

In 2015, an interdisciplinary study was conducted by professors in psychology and brain science from Georgia and New York.

They asked 19 undergraduate students to lie in an fMRI scanner, and watch film clips that had continuously flashing checkerboards (see image below) presented in the periphery of each clip. Participants were instructed to keep their eyes fixated on the center of the screen during the presentation of the video clips.

The researchers chose the most suspenseful scenes in 10 different video clips, including Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ from 1979, John Glen’s ‘Licence to Kill’ from 1989 and a few of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, such as ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ from 1956 and ‘Marnie’ from 1961.

The researchers wanted to see what happens in the moments of suspense, like when the alien awaits in the shadow while Brett searches for his cat, in ‘Alien.’ See the clip below:

Viewers are stimulated and remember suspenseful videos well.

Those same studies produced two major results—viewers were more stimulated by suspenseful videos and they also remembered details about the video well.

In the most suspenseful moments—the areas of the brain in charge of processing the clip were activated, and a suppression in activity was seen in the areas of the brain in charge of processing the surroundings, which in this case are the continuously flashing checkerboards. This proved that viewers were more interested in the clip itself than in the distraction surrounding the clip.

Viewers also remembered slightly more details about events in a video that occured at moments of high suspense than they did about events from the movie’s calmer points.

In an era where online advertisers are fighting for attention, where so many other items on the page are grabbing attention, and when attention spans are so low, using suspense is a great way to get consumers to focus their attention on your brand instead of their surroundings.

When producing product videos, suspenseful videos will help you stick in their minds. Introduce your product or logo in the most suspenseful scene for the biggest effect on a viewer’s memory.

Rachel Zalta

Rachel Zalta


Rachel Zalta, Creative Strategist at Taboola.