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It’s Time For The Advertising Industry To Rediscover Storytelling

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Storytelling and archetypes - powerful tools for brands

I recently began reading The Hero and the Outlaw, by Mark and Pearson, and found myself thinking about archetypes and the power of storytelling. People have always loved stories. We’ve used them to entertain, to educate and to provide comfort in an often confusing world. The power of the narrative, in whatever form, affects us on a deep level – whether it be emotionally, psychologically or even spiritually.

Now, when the term “modern storyteller” is used, it is often in reference to those denizens of Madison Avenue, the ad agencies. And yes, there have been many brilliant ads that were able to pack the elements of narrative into a 30, 60, 90 second (or sometimes even longer) film. Some of the most famous examples include:

Apple’s “1984″

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Coca-Cola’s “Thanks, Mean Joe!”

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Or, more recently, this brilliant little film for Johnnie Walker, “The Man Who Walked Around the World”

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All great one-offs. Nothing wrong with that, but couldn’t ads be used differently? Couldn’t they be woven together to turn a 30 second spot into multiple chapters of a deeper, richer story? I don’t mean something like simply utilizing a character in a series of ads, like Keystone’s “Keith Stone,” that’s just one joke being told a couple of different ways. Allstate got a little closer with their college football-themed ads from a season or two ago featuring the Bergwood character. But again, this lacked much emotional depth.

Which brings us to two slightly more recent efforts that have certainly staked a claim in the marketing Hall of Fame: The Geico Caveman and Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. While rich, vivid characters have been created in both cases, it lacks the deeper emotional punch of the great narrative archetypes. You could watch just one ad from either of these two campaigns and enjoy it on its own. Equally, you could watch all the ads from either campaign in random order and they would be just as enjoyable.

No, a truly powerful story has a beginning, a middle and an end. For a really well reasoned presentation on the power of storytelling, check out this number by James Mitchell that was posted by BBH Labs yesterday. As part of his presentation, James highlights perhaps the single greatest use of “longform” storytelling in advertising history. The Taster’s Choice coffee ads (in England this was Nescafe Gold Blend).

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Check out this AdAge article from 1994 on this campaign. The campaign (story, really) ran for several years and Taster’s Choice was able to “increase its dollar share of the $596 million soluble coffee market by more than 3 share points, leapfrogging past Folgers and Maxwell House into the No. 1 position.”

A testament to the power of the campaign?  As I was thinking about writing this post, I bookmarked that article two days ago, before I read James’ presentation! A 20-year old campaign was the first I could think of as an illustration of

compelling stories, even in long form, will hold the attention and interest of people

storytelling via traditional broadcast advertising. BMW’s innovative online film series, The Hire, comes close, but that really is more a series of short films that TV adverts.

What makes this even more puzzling is that we now have so many other tools through which to tell these stories. Narratives started in a Super Bowl spot can continue online, or through Twitter feeds, Flickr accounts, text messages, etc. Who is the advertising industries version of Nick Bantock, the creator of the Griffin and Sabine story? I can only imagine what he could do using digital media in the service of a brand.

Wouldn’t the Corona ads be more interesting with ongoing characters woven into them? Rather than using celebrity endorsers, or their puppet likenesses, couldn’t Nike create a scripted storyline that continues for the length of, say, the baseball season, culminating at the World Series? How about a series of ads for a TV show that act as a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, featuring secondary characters who provide a different angle and unique insight into the show? Mad Men would be perfect for that. Or better yet, how about 30 second spots from the perspective of a zombie for The Walking Dead?

We can keep chasing after shiny new toys like Augmented Reality or 3D or we can remember the basics. People like, want and need stories.


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  • http://www.worldsbestbanners.com Tim

    Storytelling is the way into people’s hearts. It is one of the main thrusts of post modernism, the narrative must be shared if you want to succeed.

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  • http://saladonions.tumblr.com James

    Rick. Love the post, and thanks for the shout-out. And the amazing coffee compilation find! Watching that really brought it all home. I noticed two things:
    1) Not a single ad of the series runs over thirty seconds, but they all make product and story work together.
    2) There are plenty of spots midway through the chain that would make absolutely no sense if viewed in complete isolation.

    Both of these require a lot of balls – both for client, and for advertiser. It’s no fun making an ad that nobody likes, just as its pretty terrible to spend a lot of money on an ad that doesn’t sell well. So to do what they did is pretty impressive.

    To do it today would seem like a risk – except that in theory it isn’t a risk, if the stats in that AdAge article are to be believe. In theory, there’s at least one strong economic precedent for this kind of storytelling.

    But I guess the next question to ask, the one I didn’t have time to ask, is – if advertisers can’t be persuaded to go for this kind of form (again, it’s not always right) what effective compromises exist? A few come to my mind.

    a) Instead of ‘story’, go with creating a world, and have you series of ads tap into that persistent world (you may not have seen these, but Detergent brand Daz currently runs a ‘Cleaner Close’ series, a spoof of classic British soap opera – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vm57-cthCw ). That way you can tap into built up feelings.

    b) If you’re lucky enough to work with a decent and cooperative IP, use what you do to expand that universe. I absolutely geeked out over the Jake Courage Halo work -http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/oct/03/advertising .

    c) Can you make your 30-second spot as the intro to the long-form? I think Absolut have tried it, but does it work? I guess the secret there would lie in a seamless call to get people online (maybe an ad at a point where people are 2-screening anyway), and a gripping enough cliffhanger that just forces you to make the jump.

    Anyway, thanks for the call to action on stories. Mean Joe Green made me smile – actually smile, not juts laugh with the reactionary ‘ha’ most ads seem to want to elucidate. And it looks like I really do have to pick up a copy of The Hero And The Outlaw!

    -james

  • http://www.rickliebling.com Rick

    Brilliant James, thanks for taking the time to share some additional thinking. Regarding ‘creating a world,’ I’ve always been fascinated by Geico, who have done that several times, simultaneously. A world in which Cavemen live, a world with a talking Gecko…

    I go to sleep at night with the hope that, someday, the Cavemen will meet the Gecko. Then, there will be a true Geico universe. That seems interesting a least to me.

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