The hero's journey, or monomyth, is a well-known template for story design. Popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, it's a collection of stages that a protagonist, or "hero," goes through in order to obtain a goal, and hopefully transform in the process. Campbell felt that this primal story was so ingrained in humanity's collective psyche that he could find it, or elements of it, in the myths and oral traditions of every culture around the world.
I myself have recognized the monomythic structure quite a lot lately in advertising. The hero's journey is an analytical expression of what we often see as "just good storytelling," so it makes sense that elements of it would appear in the most engaging or award-winning ads produced today, even if creators are using it unintentionally.
Campbell's original 17 stages have often been adapted and condensed to suit our modern story craft sensibilities, most notably by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Below is an adaptation of Vogler's take, which is the version most commonly used today, but with one big change.
Most of the time you see the hero's journey drawn as a circle; the hero ends in the same place they started. I believe it makes more sense to draw it as a spiral, because while the hero ends up where they began—either literally or figuratively—their journey has forced them to grow and change, so they ascend to a higher plane of existence. This also leaves room for their journey to continue as they face more trials, and ascend to even higher planes in the future.
The Hero's Journey
Stasis – The hero is shown in their version of the "ordinary" world. Often they are stuck. They are usually discontent…or if they are content, it's for the wrong reasons. They need to change in order to reach their full potential.
Call to adventure – The hero receives an invitation to an adventure that promises a reward, and will ultimately change them, hopefully for the better. Sometimes it's the hero saying "I need a change," and sometimes it's the universe telling them that they need to change.
Refusal of the call – The hero considers whether to accept the invitation or not. Sometimes they jump at the chance, sometimes they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Either way, even if it only lasts a second, there should be a moment where the hero looks back at where they came from and reflects on the consequences of moving forward.
Meeting the mentor – Like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Ep. IV – A New Hope, the hero receives help, guidance, advice, or supernatural aid from someone who has been on this kind of journey before.
Crossing the threshold – The hero enters a strange, special world in which everything is upside-down and backwards. Things aren't what they seem, wondrous sites are beheld, and danger lurks around every corner.
Tests, allies, and enemies – The hero meets entities along the way who either help or hinder them on their quest. They face trials, and are tested to see if they are worthy of the reward they seek.
Approach to the inmost cave – The hero begins their descent into the "belly of the whale," the place where they will be forced to undergo the most change. By choosing to enter this abyss, the hero proves their willingness to let go of their old, un-evolved identity.
The ordeal in the abyss; facing the shadow self – The hero has made it to their greatest challenge. If they are willing to let their old identity die and embrace who they need to be (often figurative, but sometimes a literal death and rebirth), they are victorious. Often a hero will face an antagonist that is a shadow of themselves. In A New Hope this is Darth Vader, Luke's father, and the man whom Luke said he aspired to be. At other times, the hero themselves is the obstacle. Regardless of who or what it is, this antagonist has immense power that the hero must face.
Apotheosis – Literally meaning "the elevation of someone to divine status," the hero achieves a greater understanding thanks to their trials. This is the moment they ascend to that higher plane of existence—not only can they not go back to who they once were, they wouldn't want to. It's this understanding that gives them the key they need, and the resolve, to face the toughest part of their adventure.
The ultimate boon – This is the treasure the hero came to seek. Everything they have gone through up to this point has purified them so that they are worthy enough to claim their reward.
Refusal of the return – Just as in the beginning of their journey, the hero needs a moment of reflection on the necessity to return to the world they came from, and what they're leaving behind. Sometimes they don't even want to return (why would anyone want to leave Narnia?), but ultimately they must.
The road back home – The trick here is for the hero to return with their new special knowledge intact, and figure out how they're going to integrate it into their new life.
Master of two worlds – This is the synthesis of who the hero was before they began their journey, and who they have become. The hero is comfortable with their new balance, having resolved both their external quest and their inner fulfillment.
Return with special knowledge – The hero is now ready to share their special knowledge with the rest of the world. They may even become a mentor for a new hero who must begin their own journey.
Not every stage is reflected in every story, and sometimes they're out of order. Still, most engaging stories do have elements of this adventure narrative, and that includes the stories we tell for brands.
Watch Apple®'s award-winning short film for HomePod™, "Welcome Home," directed by the legendary Spike Jonze. After you've digested the journey above, see how many of these moments you can recognize in the brief few minutes of this story.
Did you catch them all? Even though it lacks the kind of conflict and tension that we normally associate with an adventure story, this colorful short follows the hero's journey almost to the letter.
The story begins with our hero, who lives a dull and constricting life in the big city, hemmed in on all sides.
When she uses her HomePod, her environment begins to expand, starting with the table. This is her invitation to adventure. She even has a moment where she seems to contemplate whether she should engage with this magic.
Once she does, she coaxes the walls open, and crosses the threshold into an expanded, vibrant world.
At one point she pushes the wall and the wall pushes back, as if testing her…Are you sure you want to do this?
She enters a cave of color and light, moving deeper into the abyss within the special world, until…
She meets a literal reflection of herself. She dances with this doppelgänger until the ordinary world calls her home once again.
She looks back at the world she's leaving behind, as if contemplating what she's learned.
The road home is traveled, until…
She lands exactly where she started, on the couch in her once again ordinary apartment. Compared to her beginning state, we can see the change on her face—she's happier and full of life.
After her adventure, our hero returns with the special knowledge that a quality music player makes a space feel bigger and more vibrant. The advertising message is clear: Buy Apple HomePod, and you too can feel this apotheosis. That's the message behind a lot of branding these days, in fact. Not buy this product and get these benefits, but rather buy this product and feel this way, which is why emotional advertising is so popular.
Here's another one from Lotto New Zealand. In this example, not all of the stages of the journey are shown, just implied.
Did you catch how the script began with the word "And"? We enter a story in progress, where Dylan's before state is implied, and we can infer what his world looked like before—that of a subpar peewee athlete. The ball that rolls to Dylan is his call to adventure, and the kick is his way of crossing the threshold. He avoids enemies, has a moment of reflection where he faces the antagonism of his own right foot, and succeeds in his ordeal to pass the ball. The apotheosis he feels with "the tectonic plates of his life shifting" as he ascends to a new level leaves us with this special knowledge: that if you play and win the lottery, you could feel like a kid who's just kicked the game-winning ball. Or, at least helped it along.
The hero's journey plays out in shorter forms as well, though stages are often skipped or condensed. In this beautiful spot for Toyota, our hero (Olympic medalist Ashley Wagner) is on a journey to chase her dreams. She stumbles and crosses the threshold into a literal abyss, where her greatest trial awaits. She comes to a transcendent realization ("strength only comes from our struggle"), is reborn back into the world above, and continues on, stronger and wiser than before with the special knowledge that she's gained ("the harder we fall, the stronger we rise"). The hero's journey stages, while condensed into a single moment, are still recognizable.
This fun and quirky ad for Kia is a perfect manifestation of meeting the mentor. Christopher Walken, awaiting our hero in the "Walken closet," imparts life-changing advice, then escorts the hero across a threshold into a special world where he gets to drive a new Kia Optima. The implication is that our hero will return to his ordinary world eventually, but with the special knowledge of what it feels like to drive a truly exciting car.
Even in a stylish and dialogue-free ad, the hero's journey can pop up. See if you can spot any of the stages in this dance-focused short for Levi's.
The ad opens with a number of heroes across multiple ages and cultures, all "stepping up" to answer the call of an intimidating dance circle. Our first hero actually pushes other people out of the way in order to step across the threshold into the middle of the circle. As we see other heroes in their own circles, they meet allies, face challenges from friends, and experience the jubilation of losing themselves in music and in life. The implication is that only the bold will dare to enter the circle, and only the bold know what it's truly like to "Live in Levi's."
While video is the most common storytelling medium in advertising, the hero's journey can also make an appearance in static mediums, like print.
In this series of ads for the travel service Sedventure, our hero is seen at two different stages—at the beginning of his journey just after he's stepped over the threshold into a new adventure, and at the end of his journey after the trials have changed him. The line, "Travel far enough / You'll meet yourself," implies that only such an epic journey can show you who you truly are, and Sedventure is able to provide that journey.
This campaign for Ford shows our heroes in the stage after a literal apotheosis, or deification. The copy reads "Work like a goddess," or "Work like a god." If you purchase a Ford truck or van, it appears, your everyday work will feel transcendent.
This series of ads for Reporter Magazine uses juxtaposition to show a hero who takes the time to inform themself, and attain a higher consciousness than the mass of people around them. By allowing the magazine to mentor them along their journey toward enlightenment, they can forge their own path.
The hero's journey can pop up in activations and interactive media, as well. Here is a case study for a one-day, worldwide Burger King activation.
The introductory copy, "we decided to face our biggest fear," is a great setup for the journey. Burger King turned their restaurants into an upside-down world, with "enemies" and "danger" everywhere. The intent was that their customers would leave with the special knowledge that clowns are scary, and should be avoided. In other words, it was a tongue-in-cheek dig at their biggest competitor, McDonald's.
This Legoland app was a brilliant way to turn a literal journey into a hero's journey. They took a part of the customer experience over which the brand normally doesn't have any control, the travel to and from the resort, and turned it into a fun adventure for kids to engage with. Visitors were able to enter the special world of the resort sooner, and stay longer.
I could share many, many more examples of ad campaigns that borrow elements from the hero's journey to evoke empathy in the viewer. There are quite a few more below…see if you can catch the hero's journey in each of them.
The Importance of Apotheosis
The one thing all of these campaigns seem to have in common, whether implicit or implied, is the apotheosis stage of the journey; the moment of realization when a hero lets go of their old, un-evolved self, and embraces their new, better self, which is enabled by the transcendent realization that the brand's product or service provides.
If a brand is a promise (and the best ones are), then the apotheosis is the fulfillment of that promise.
The hero's journey, with its recognizable and universal elements, is the perfect tool to help creators and strategists hone in on and amplify that moment in any advertising story when our hero, ready for a change in their life, transcends to a new plane of existence thanks to the brand.
Even More Examples
Further reading and watching:
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
The hero's journey entry on Wikipedia
"The Story Behind Apple's 'Welcome Home,' a Joyous Metaphor for the Impact of Music" on Adweek
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas famously based this plot very heavily on the hero's journey, so it's worth rewatching to study the structure)
Cannes Lions Award Winners 2018 on YouTube
Cannes Lions Award Winners 2017 on YouTube
Cannes Lions Award Winners 2016 on YouTube