J Shape Deep Dive


This is a surprising shape. It’s one best illustrated by Puma’s “After Hours Athlete.” You’re dropped completely blind into a sequence of ideas and have no idea why you’re being taken on this journey. But, at the same time, you’re sucked in. There’s a hypnotism to J-Shape manifestos that pulls attention like a gnat to a blue light. Sure, the intellectual side of your brain wants to know what this is all about, but it’s comfortable waiting for a minute because the other side of your brain is so delighted in the scene or sequence being conveyed.
You need two things to do this well that are separate even from the structure below. First, you need a great concept. This shape absolutely requires landing on an interesting, crystal-clear and unique idea.
That’s what saves the rest of the piece from being a complete waste of time. Once our brains notices that there’s no POV, tension, or WTF at the beginning of these pieces, it’s content to settle in and enjoy the ride. But there is a full expectation that that ride will return safely back to the station and not head off a cliff at the last minute.
This is how the J-Shape got its name. I think of it as a plunge down the long bar of the J, all the way to ward to bottom—then, at the last second, the perfect line comes into save the day and guide the listener to a safe and gentle landing.
This is why the second aspect of the J-Shape is crucial. You absolutely have to write this in an interesting way. This is almost always done with insightful examples that pierce into the heart of whatever thing you’re talking about. Humanity and honesty need to shine through.

How it works

Step 1 — Blind: Only details, nothing about why.

You must start this piece blind. By that, I mean you must drop the floor out from under us and not provide any guide rails. Even more important, you must also not provide anything that could be construed as a POV or tension line. You don’t want to turn on the rational engine in our heads that make us think we have to form a perspective. Lines that sound like POVs tend to wake that mechanism up. Instead, just start rocking. Axe does this well in their VO for “Find Your Magic”:
C’mon, a sixpack? Who needs a sixpack when you got the nose. Or a nose when you got the suit. Now you don’t need a suit when you got the moves. Or moves when you got the fire. Or fire when you rock those heels. And heels when you ride those wheels.
And on it goes. See how it doesn’t actually tell us anything? It doesn’t say, “When you’ve got something great, make it great.” I just keeps listing different examples over and over. A lot of J-Shape manifestos will use parallel structure for this step, and it’s fine to do so. But even more common is to have something that resembles parallel structure without using it exclusively. The Axe manifesto is a good example. Lots of connected elements, but nothing so strict as everything starting the same.
Another good example is the Puma one we mentioned earlier. This is how “After Hours Athlete” starts”:
Backspin on a warped table under bad light. A kiss off the 8-ball, a bank on the six. Double bull on a single throw, three pints in. Picking up a spare in the final frame. Singing on-key, off-key, and, losing keys.
This isn’t parallel structure, but there is a parallel feeling to each line. Each one feels like a brush stroke, sketching in the details of the scene one small piece a time.
The goal with this step is usually to bring your idea to life. The Axe manifesto talks about a lot of different kinds of guys, and in doing so, invites a lot of different kinds of people into their idea. The Puma spot goes another way. It talks about a very specific type of person, and in doing so, invites us to admire, be inspired by, or be part of it ourself—depending on how far we are from that lifestyle.
With J-Shape manifestos, I recommend really paying attention to the ratios. There are some manifestos that stop much earlier, around the 70% mark because they have a bit more business to do at the end. This is fine. But try first to make almost the entire script blind, and then only save folks at the end. In my experience, that has more power.

Step 2 — Answer: Tell us what it all means.

The J-Shape ending has a different job to do than the E-Shape ending. With the E-Shape, you need to give a summary as to why everything before was said.
With the J-Shape, you need to go one step further and tell us what all this means. It’s not enough to just summarize it or hit us with the clearest example. You need to explain. That’s the cost for spending 95% of your words being blind—we need some solid earth to land on.
The Nike “You were Born a Daughter” manifesto was so powerful people were cutting it out on of magazines to put on their wall. It spanned a lot of pages, most of which use parallel structure to illuminate the struggles of womanhood. Then, just before the end, it tells us what it all means. Remember
You became a significant other. You became significant to yourself. Sooner or later, you start taking yourself seriously. You know when you need a break. You know when you need a rest. You know what to get worked up about and what to get rid of. And you know when it’s time to take care of yourself, for yourself. To do something that makes you stronger, faster, more complete. Because you know it’s never too late to have a life. And never too late to change one.
That’s a great example of a more serious turn, but has a lot of potential for fun. Here’s the ending of the Krispy Kreme manifesto, “Donuts are Bad for You”:
But then if you've never felt the pleasure of eating a delicious fluffy original glazed doughnut hot off the line and, heaven forbid, you get struck by lightning, well surely that would be really bad. Really really bad.
Done right, the J-Shape manifestos have a lot of power to be re-read or appreciated in new ways on multiple readings and viewings. When these become commercials, I believe they are the ones people enjoy re-watching the most. We know where it’s all headed so we can sit back and enjoy the show.

Cheat Sheet

If you want to write a J-Shape manifesto, here’s your structure. I recommend really paying attention to the ratios. There are some manifestos that stop much earlier, around the 70% mark because they have a bit more business to do at the end. This is fine. But try to go as long as possible before pulling the parachute. In my experience, that has more power.
Blind: Only details, nothing about why.
Answer: Tell us what it all means.

Example: “Double Life”

This commercial is a favorite among copywriters. I think part of that is due to the visuals contrasting the lines in this script, pairing unexpected people with lines you wouldn’t expect them to say. That does a wonderful job of conveying the core idea of the double life. However, even as its own script, it’s a fantastic example of starting blind and not telling why until the end card.
For years, I’ve lived a double life. In the day, I do my job. Ride the bus. Roll up my sleeves with the hoi polloi. But at night, I live a life of exhilaration. I’ve missed heartbeats and adrenaline. And if the truth be known, a life of dubious virtue. I won’t deny it: I’ve been engaged in violence. Even indulged in it. I’ve assailed adversaries. And not merely in self defense. I’ve exhibited a disregard for life, limb, and property. Savored every moment. You might not think it to look at me. But I have commanded armies and conquered worlds. And though, in achieving these things, I’ve set morality aside. I have no regrets. For though I’ve lived a double life. At least I can say, I’ve lived.
Even though this script starts with “I’ve lived a double life,” I believe that’s still a great blind opening. The first time watching this commercial, we don’t know how this double life is created. There is no mention of video games, and in fact there are no video games ant all in the entire commercial. Throughout the script, we’re curious what this is all about.
Notice how effectively this script brings the core feeling of PlayStation games to life. It doesn’t say, “I’ve shot bad guys. Raced cars. Built stuff with blocks.” Instead, it goes into rich details like “assailed adversaries,” and lives of “exhilaration” and “dubious virtue.” We’re pulled into the emotion of playing, hearing how the moments were “savored.”
I believe that this script has particular power because the last two lines of the piece summarize the idea beautifully without actually giving away the ending. It makes its own point—that living a double life is a path toward a fulfilled one.
This pre-ending (let’s call it) is common in J-Shape manifestos. We see it in Nike’s “You were Born a Daughter,” when it said, “You became a significant other. You became significant to yourself.” This is not essential, but can be helpful and effective if your concept allows.
SUPER: Do not underestimate the power of Play Station.
This ending is the final swoop of the J for “Double Life.” The ratio doesn’t quite line up with the 85/15 that most J-Shape manifestos do, but I think that’s more a result of the medium rather than necessity. This could just as easily been 5 interesting lines instead of 1. However, as a single line, it’s doing a lot of heavily lifting.
Once we hear the line, the final piece falls into place. We have our answer: these were PlayStation gamers talking about their experience in video games. This is the final puzzle piece that makes everything click into place. Without it, we’d have no idea what everything else meant.
They probably could have just ended with the PlayStation logo and it would have answered the question just as well, but I think they achieved something better by including this line. It goes beyond saying, “These are gammers.” It says that the presence of PlayStation games gives life purpose, value, and meaning.
That additional step—the added value—is worth the line. Just like we saw at the end of the Chivas Regal manifesto when talking about E-Shapes, this line elevates the level of PlayStation. This is more than a gaming system. This is a powerful engine for enacting change in a person’s life.
When writing your own J-Shape manifesto, I highly suggest knowing where your going. You might find it more enjoyable to just start writing the script, but make sure you take time to consider the point all this is driving toward. It will help you know what brush strokes need to be applied to give that the most power. And even more important, it will give you the confidence to leave a whole lot of stuff out, knowing that it’ll all be cleared up at the end.


The homework for this shape is different than the others. It comes in tow parts. Firs recommend first trying other manifesto shapes before you land on this one. When writing manifestos, I’ll sometimes get a sense that an S-Shape or a U-Shape manifesto is a good fit for the idea. The J-Shape is a weird one. The fact that it’s blind means you need a lot of trust—or a lot of great writing—to hold attention all the way through the first step. If anyone in your audience has a short attention span, or if they’re looking for the manifesto to check a lot of boxes, this is not the way to go.
You don’t have to write entire manifestos in the other shapes. Just sketch out a few simple structures to see if those fit you best. Take a look at the introduction to this section for the cheat sheets and run water through them with your idea in mind.
If you realize the other manifestos just aren’t good fits, then maybe the J-Shape is right. It is the best manifesto for creating a mood rather than an argument. It’s also a great manifesto for luring the audience into your point without fully explaining to them what you mean until they’re already committed. Krispy Kreme’s “Donuts are Bad for You” is a great example of this. You think they’re going to say that enjoying donuts makes them worth the fact that they’re bad—but it’s actually a lesson in moderation.
When if you decide the J-Shape is the one for you, take a moment to work on your tone of voice. Nearly all J-Shape manifestos are distinct in how they’re written. Except for some really spectacular S-Shape manifestos, the J-Shape is the only one that can border on poetry and still be an effective manifesto. Whenever I write one, I always think about the painting “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper. I think of the idea of rendering a scene, a mood, an idea, a feeling, or a story with just the right amount of texture without over complicating it.
The second part of your homework is to consume a lot of non-advertising content that’s in the style of the mood you want to create. If you want it to be funny, listen to comedy, watch sketches online, go to a show or a movie. If you want to make it more serious, read poetry, visit a museum, watch a lecture on your topic. When in doubt, find someone you don’t normally talk to and have a conversation about your topic. Listen to their perspective and don’t interrupt. Your goal is to give yourself an energy source you can feed into this script. That’s the best way to bring it to life.