Good Advertising Is Good Storytelling

My aspiration has always been to become a professional storyteller. Over the years, my focus has bounced around quite a bit from writer to filmmaker, cartoonist to animator, poet to playwright, game developer to VR enthusiast...but I've never limited my interest to just one form of fiction, because I love a well-crafted story in any medium.

I steered toward practicality in my twenties (as most new adults are encouraged to do), so most of my career has been in the field of marketing and advertising, which allowed me to use my creativity in exchange for a paycheck. Like many creatives who hold a similar day job, I came to believe that advertising has less integrity than "pure" storytelling because its aim is to convince people to buy things they don't necessarily need, whereas a story's aim is to entertain or evoke an emotional response. I naïvely thought that advertising only takes, while storytelling gives. 

Then I began to work at Y&R New York, one of the largest and oldest firms in the world. After collaborating with some of the most brilliant minds in the industry, I had a revelation:

Bad advertising tells people what to buy. Good advertising tells people a story that gives them something to believe in.

At the highest level, advertising needs to give people a reason to love a brand even if they never intend to buy the product. In other words, they need to not only entertain viewers, they need to make them believe in something, just as so many good storytellers do.

Well-crafted ad campaigns have deeply human themes about belonging, self expression, and the capacity for human kindness. They have messages which transcend commerce, and most importantly that evoke intense emotion in the audience. When I examined some of the world's most iconic brands through this lens, it proved true.

There was a Nike commercial that aired during the 2012 Olympics which featured a kid who wasn’t a typical athlete, but was determined to persevere anyway. The spot didn't give the message: "Come buy our shoes." Rather, Nike's more emotional message was clear: "Anyone can be great if they have the willingness and the grit to try." That's a theme, not a sales pitch.

A recent Always campaign challenged the derogatory phrase: “Like a girl.” Always gave a microphone to young girls to talk about their experiences, not so that these girls could sell sanitary products, but so that they could speak out against a pervasive misogynistic culture that tells them who they can and cannot be.

Air BnB produced a philosophical manifesto that posed a fundamental question: "Are humans inherently kind? Let’s go explore the world and find out." 

One of the most successful campaigns of all time told us all that in order to change the world, it’s vital to: "Think different." 

And nothing will make you cry like a commercial for Thai Life Insurance.

Each brand is like a character that stars in its own story, with its own beliefs, philosophy, values, tone of voice, and personality traits that differentiate it from others. For example, take the "Stratos" event that Red Bull sponsored, when Felix Baumgartner broke the world record for the highest skydive ever attempted. From the outside it might look like a mere stunt, something that Red Bull's brand team dreamed up to target their "thrill-seeker" audience. But the chief medical officer for the project, Dr. Jonathan Clark, lost his wife Laurel when the Columbia Shuttle disintegrated on re-entry and killed the entire crew. Clark believed strongly in this experiment because he wanted to help revolutionize technology that would allow astronauts to bail out and parachute from the fringes of the atmosphere in case of another catastrophic disaster.

Felix Baumgartner preparing to jump from the stratosphere, 24 miles above the Earth.

Felix Baumgartner preparing to jump from the stratosphere, 24 miles above the Earth.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, Dr. Laurel Clark, and their son Iain.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, Dr. Laurel Clark, and their son Iain.

Talk about an emotional story with real-world consequences! Once I learned this, I couldn't help but view Red Bull as a legitimate hero that was making the world a better, safer place for humanity to push beyond our limitations. You can't ask much more from the protagonist of any adventure story.

Once I recognized the power and necessity of good storytelling in advertising, I started to pay very close attention to how these amazingly talented brand planners, strategists, and creatives around me crafted the character of brands and the stories they starred in. Just like any story, they must be plotted, crafted, revised, and published. And while many of the storytelling techniques are the same as in other creative fields like writing for filmmaking, a good number of techniques and tools are decidedly different. I decided that if I learned any great insights that could take my own stories to the next level, I would borrow the hell out of them. I have not been disappointed with what I've found so far.

I plan to explore a number of ideas that exist in the advertising world, as well as the other worlds I inhabit within my professional life (interaction design, user experience, and behavioral research to name a few), and explore how they might be used in the development of my own fictional stories. 

Up first: how a proprietary Y&R idea called Brand Tensity™ inspired me to examine opposing forces in stories, and what it taught me about compelling characters and worlds.