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:
Coca-Cola’s “Thanks, Mean Joe!”
Or, more recently, this brilliant little film for Johnnie Walker, “The Man Who Walked Around the World”
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).
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
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.