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Take a message to my love October 15, 2008

Posted by David Gillespie in advertising, storytelling.
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There’s this age old idea that people got into advertising who wanted to make movies, the same way every journalist is supposedly a frustrated novelist. I’m sure it is true for some, and entirely not true for many. My friend Matt used to be a journalist and now works in advertising, he might have something interesting to say there (he usually does).

There’s a distinction, an important one I think, between people wanting to make movies and people wanting to tell stories. I’m wondering if advertising always has to tell stories, at least, needs to tell them in a traditional sense. One thing I think old media advertising did and still does much better than digital is deliver a whole story in just a single image and a bit of copy. We can argue until the cows come home that that isn’t the point any more, but that’s for another post.

In writing this I’ve been thinking about ads that have conveyed a story for me, and particularly ones that didn’t have narrative at their core, but still managed to tell us a whole lot. Take for example one of my favourite commercials ever (yes, forever-ever, forever-ever):

There’s a whole lot of story going on here, it isn’t just five guys goofing off with each other. The bikes hanging up in the first apartment, the cut to Dookie who is clearly the rennaissance man of the bunch, left-handed and a gamer, at the end we’re even shown it’s winter outside. We could make some guesses around the character archetypes employed to bring the story to life, but we’ve already got a variety of things to work with, and in a transmedia environment there’s a lot of fun to be had very quickly, and very easily.

Another commercial that only came out this year that I loved was this one from HSBC:

What did you think? One colleague I showed it to said it made him angry, he really got worked up by it. I thought it was great though, brilliantly executed to deliver a very particular point – and in delivering a point we get to the heart of narrative in traditional advertising.

Advertising, in telling a story, requires a very specific emotion or lesson to come out of the narrative in order for the brand’s proposition to connect with the audience; if there’s ambiguity it falls flat, it only works if it can’t be easily refuted, and that’s really, really hard to do. With this in mind they have more in common with Hans Christian Anderson than they do with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (great book, read it), stories employed to deliver a very particular point, constructed from very simple devices to make the re-telling as simple and easy as possible, which is why when I get around to having kids they’re still going to be hearing about Hansel and Gretel, even though I’d much rather be telling them about Han Solo and Chewie.

This is getting a bit long, so I’m going to split this into two sections as I still want to talk about ambiguity and how it works in favour of the story when done right (it’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise). To whet the appetite, if you haven’t seen the HBO Voyeur site, then that is homework.

Meanwhile, what’s your favourite example of a linear story in advertising?

**Update** October 29th, 2008

Watch the Budweiser guys get resurrected in this pseudo-spot for Barack Obama. This is now a meme as much as it was ever a commercial, which means the fun is only just getting started.

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1. Matt - October 16, 2008

For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.

A frustrated journalist wrote that 30 years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His name was Ernest Hemmingway.

You need at least four bits for a story: a protagonist, a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning sets the protagonist on a journey, the middle heightens the tension and the end moves you because a life has changed. It doesn’t matter how long the story is, as long as it has those four bits and unless an ad has a story, it’s never going to move you.

TV advertising is so good because the master story tellers of the last half century, the ones who put those four bits together better than anyone else, work in TV advertising – they don’t work in ‘digital’. You can bet that if Shakespeare or Hemmingway were alive today they’d be making Budweiser commercials for the SuperBowl or John West videos for YouTube. Give it another half century and the master story tellers will be using another medium, it will be digital — in that ones and zeroes will convey the information — but we will almost certainly be calling it something different.

2. The Future of Story in Advertising » Zakazukha Zoo Online Marketing Blog - October 16, 2008

[...] advertising is so good because the master story tellers of the last half century, the ones who put those four bits [...]

3. David Gillespie - October 16, 2008

Matt, don’t you think if Hemmingway or Shakespear were alive today, they would both still be writers? Suggesting advertising is the exclusive domain of story-tellers is, I think, just plain wrong. The best advertising tells a story, but that doesn’t mean we’re all story-tellers. I reckon the great storytellers of our time are usually off doing something other than selling a beer to earn a crust, still writing novels and great plays and making great movies and singing wonderful songs.

I think what the best storytellers have always done and will continue to do is figure out what story they want to tell, and then decide what medium suits it best.

4. Maggy - October 18, 2008

I run an email advertising site and couldn’t agree more however with email advertising the story needs to be short and to the point. Moving emotions to grab the reader as quickly as possible results in a high turn-around.

5. David Gillespie - October 21, 2008

Hey Maggy,

Thanks for stopping by. I’m totally with you on the story being short and to the point, which is something I think traditional advertising does better than digital a this point, saying so much with a single bit of copy and an image.

I think we’re getting there, but then we’re also having to choose from so many ways to actually tell the story in the first place, which will be incredibly exciting once we figure it out.

6. For sale: Baby shoes, never worn. | e-CBD Blog - January 12, 2012

[...] advertising is so good because the master story-tellers of the last half century — the ones who put those four bits [...]


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