Home > advertising theory, Creativity, storytelling > Where are the storytellers?

Where are the storytellers?

In a world 2.0, is our industry not losing its focus?

It seems to me that agencies are now focused on trying to find the next cool thing or the best Facebook application, forgetting that one of the most powerful advertising tool is still a good story.

And I believe advertising needs good storytellers more than ever.

Since I’ve read Made To Stick, by the Heath brothers, I’ve rediscovered the importance of stories, their communication power, their abilities to teach, to guide people through their lives… and why it’s so difficult to write or find good ones.

But more importantly for us advertising chaps, stories seem to be the ultimate tool to communicate a message and build a brand.

The Madetostick blog points to a Brandweek’s article : “New Advertising Research Foundation says storytellers succeed”.

In this three-year-long research, they discovered that “advertisements that tell a branding story work better than ads that focus on product positioning.”

And most importantly:

“Today, consumers interact with ads to “co-create” meaning that is powered by emotion and rich narrative. “Advertising has been standing on the sidelines, stuck on the language of positioning,” said Randall Ringer, managing director and co-founder, Verse Group, New York. “Telling a story about the brand is more engaging, memorable and compelling than telling a bunch of facts.”

And this is a crucial finding. Perhaps obvious when mentioned now, but if we look at most advertising a lot of it fails to establish any sort of emotional connection with its audience. And that is for one simple reason: the inability to tell a great story.

So I started a little research to learn what makes a good story. And as it happens, it seems to be a pretty simple pattern. Because what is advertising if not the possibility for a brand to tell its story? Therefore, why are creative teams not working with the same principles that their counterparts in film and television are in order to write compelling stories? The only difference being that in advertising you don’t get 90 minutes to tell your story, but you do get the chance to tell many one-minute-long stories (and I’ll come on to that in a later post).

We have to learn and adapt what screenwriters all have to work with: the principles that make great stories.

They are all summarised in James Bonnet’s book, Stealing Fire From The Gods (a must read for anyone having anything to do with creative work, writing or judging it).

I won’t start going through the whole book in detail here but there are a few concepts that we should all know which I’ll outline below. First, here is his definition of a story:

“the purpose of the story is to guide us to our full potential and the nature of story is to conceal that purpose in an enticing sugar coat that lures us into the experience.

A great story stimulates our imagination by provoking personal fantasies, which lead to the desire for actions in the real world. Then gives us a taste, by way of a special feeling, of what it might be like if we were actually to make one of these passages and accomplish some of these things.”

So stories are not just entertaining; they also contain “hidden truths” explaining how to tackle life’s problems. How to deal, or not to deal, with vengeance, forgiving, isolation, how to handle relationships, friendships… And crucially, they make you want to take an action after hearing or watching them.

“Great stories, then, are complex metaphors, their different characters, places, actions, and objects all reflecting different aspects of this hidden, inner truth.”

According to the author, omitting a strong hidden truth is like committing story suicide.

Now, this seems very similar to the role I would attribute to advertising. The inner truth is the brand’s point of view that should give something valuable to its audience, in the form of help or advice.

As Bonnet puts it:

“If you analyze hundreds of great stories, certain patterns begin to emerge. These patterns are called archetypes”.

Bonnet exemplifies his theories in his ‘story wheel’. Each story ever written features on the wheel (shown here). At the bottom is Nadir and at the top is Zenith. Going anti-clockwise, the stories on the bottom-right relate individuals to themselves, to their family or otherwise prepare them for life. Then, continuing up, are stories that relate the individual to society, to the world and to the cosmos. Once the hero has reached the Zenith, he starts a decline following exactly these same principles.

Now, let’s look at some famous ads that can be considered against Bonnet’s story wheel and fit these stories’ patterns.

– First, the famous Guinness surfers. The ad describes the wait that surfers have to go through before getting that perfect wave. We also follow the hero riding the wave (the power of which is dramatised through the horse metaphor) while his friends are falling down: the viewer is kept wondering if he’ll succeed, which he does and is subsequently embraced by his peers (climax). The artistic production obviously contributed to making this ad iconic.

The Guinness-surfer story relates to an individual reaching his zenith and recognition among his group of peers.

The hidden truth is made clear: that patience is a good thing, and makes you enjoy things even more once you have them.

But this one is not:

Although a nice visual treat, it’s hard for the viewer to connect and engage with the ad. It’s just another expensive domino-style ad that will be quickly forgotten.

– Axe’s ‘Getting Dressed’ also follows a strong narrative – that of the classic love story but with a twist. It begins with the depiction of a couple in bed; the viewer’s curiosity is piqued and immediately the viewer wants to know how they met. We follow them to the supermarket, where we discover the “marvellous element”: it all happened because the guy tried Axe while shopping in the supermarket. Its conclusion is a surprising one: they depart in separate ways, but each with a smile on their face.

In that respect, it is almost like a modern fairytale, but done in the other way around. From being a wonderful couple to being single entities.

The hidden truth here is also very clear: as a young single lad, you want to make sure you are always prepared because you never know when ‘it’ might happen. I can connect with that, it does feel plausible and thus it reinforces the brand and product. Spot on.

But Axe’s ‘Billions’ is not a story. Although it surely pleases the eyes of horny teenagers, it doesn’t follow a story pattern, but just shows some bikini-clad girls running to a guy who’s spraying Axe around. The fact that it’s inexplicably set on an island and that the models are in bikinis, and the fact that it doesn’t really end (what do they do with him? a barbeque?) don’t add up to make this commercial a great story.

The hidden truth here is too obvious and the metaphor used – the billions of girls – is just too unrealistic for me to believe in the product’s benefit. It gets a reaction from me, but no emotional connection (though some may say it is more intended to work on a physical level).

– Here’s another great example of how a simple story makes a great commercial. We’ve all seen this commercial for Epuron.

The man acts as a strong and entertaining metaphor for the wind, but at first the viewer is left wondering who this rather awkward person is. We follow him and witness him being ignored, sad and lonely. Because he is different, people do not accept him and are irritated by his behaviour (Bonnet’s “state of misfortune”, allowing people to relate and feel empathy for him). Until one day, when someone finally accepts him for what he is and puts his skills to good use, making him feel good about himself and doing some good for society too (‘the resolution’).

It’s a story about a man and his place in society.

The hidden truth here, a favourite of Walt Disney, is that you may get alienated in life because you are different but you will find someone that will put your skills to good use and you will make the world a better place. It’s an optimistic message that everyone has a place in society, no matter how different they are.

Finally, a contender for best ad ever:

We follow the heroine’s journey to initiate a revolution against this Orwellian and ‘creativity-free’ world as she’s being chased by guards. She succeeds in throwing her hammer into the screen (climax) and in doing so makes sure this future won’t be.

Hidden truth: Be and think different. At a time when being original meant being an outcast, and the consequence was social exclusion, Apple was pretty brave in championing ‘be and think different’.

Again, another story about individual and society.

At this point, I’d like to say that the existence of a story is NOT mandatory to make a successful ad. Fallon’s work on Sony and Cadbury bolsters this point. But creating powerful stories is still, for me, one of the main component of building brands.

So moving forward, how do we make better stories?

We could:

– Understand story models, such as the ones developed by James Bonnet.

– Re-watch great cinema classics with a new eye and see how they successfully apply these techniques. Apparently, George Lucas wrote the Star Wars story after being completely inspired by Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which Bonnet quotes a lot too.

– Take note of great stories people tell you or that you hear in the news. The recent news story of the Missing Canoe Man is, for example, already becoming a cult story. It contains many of the twists and narrative mentioned in Bonnet’s book.

Stories do not have to live in a 30′ spot. We need to understand how to build stories for the brands we work for and that means using different channels to do so. Not simply how to make a great commercial. Great stories can start on TV or could only be done online. It could be a book, a film, a comic book, a performance, Youtube videos…

It is also a lot harder to surprise and entertain and audience nowadays than it was a decade ago. But spending more time finding fresh and original stories that your brand can tell will make the difference between average and great creative work.

We remember stories, not ads.

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  1. January 5, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Have you read any of William Goldman’s books? Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell are brilliant. They are about movie making and story telling and selling. You’d enjoy them. \
    http://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Screen-Trade-William-Goldman/dp/0446391174

  2. Digicynic
    January 14, 2008 at 10:44 am

    No i didn’t. But it’s been ordered. Thanks for that!

  1. May 27, 2008 at 11:06 am

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