Storytelling and… Advertising?

Storytelling is a bit of a fad concept in adland. The fact that adland people like to call themselves storytellers isn’t surprising. We love our fancy titles. Solutions architects? Yeah mate, why not. Strategic Visualiser? That meant to be literal or what? Cat herder? Sure. And now there’s ‘storyteller’, which I hope was meant ironically before the fad started, given the tendency of many people in the creative industry to claim they’re ‘visual’ people and only read books that include the words ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter’ in them. If at all. The ability to spell was a rare skill in design school in Australia, strangely enough, as was the ability to tell the difference between “your” and “you’re”.

Just check out Adweek’s recent list of 12 Books That Will Make You a Better Writer and Storyteller. Charlotte’s Web, really? That’s a book I enjoyed when I was six, before I became an avid National Geographic enthusiast and realized quite a few species of spiders actually have babies that eat their mothers. It’s a stark contrast from the “Best Of” lists that fiction authors like to produce, which usually include books like Lolita and Ulysses. I’m not claiming that those books are more entertaining than Charlotte’s Web. Confession: in the shallow darkness of my soul I probably enjoyed the book about the unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider more than Ulysses, which still doesn’t fail to put me to sleep. The sheer dissociation between adland’s fav ‘storyteller’ books and the rest of the world’s, sadly, speaks to the dissociation between what adland considers a good story and what the rest of the world does.

You’re A Storyteller! You’re A Storyteller!

noun: storytelling; noun: story-telling
  1. 1.
    the activity of telling or writing stories.
    “the power of cinematic storytelling”
adjective: storytelling
  1. 1.
    relating to the telling or writing of stories.
    “the oral storytelling tradition”

Yes, some adland people are, objectively speaking, also well-regarded tellers of stories. James Patterson, one of the world’s juggernaut bestselling authors, was the creative director of JWT, then its US CEO. Peter Mayle, who nearly single-handedly created a new genre of books with his Year in Provence, worked as a copywriter for Ogilvy, then as creative director for BBDO. Salman Rushdie was also in Ogilvy. Dr Seuss used to be an adland illustrator.

The list stretches on, both in film, in art, and on the page. The fact that many adland people have become successful published authors, filmmakers, and illustrators within their own right doesn’t make us all storytellers. By unironically co-opting and throwing the term around, adland is beginning to devalue what it means to be a storyteller.

In other words, consecrating ads as stories satisfies every meta-marketing objective.

So what’s the issue?

One obvious problem is that most brands have no particular story to tell—at least not anymore. (x)

We like being called storytellers because there’s a mystical quality to the word. It’s an expression of craft and talent with a lineage that stretches as long as there has been language. While advertising can be called storytelling in the thinnest sense–some ads do have some sort of basic commercial narrative–to put advertising on par with Anna Karenina is a bit of a stretch.

Humility? Good gracious. Perish the thought!

We do want to be taken seriously by everyone else, don’t we, Don Draper?

Second confession: in the agency, we have a list of keywords that we call ‘Wanker Words that Work’, a list that many a ‘solutions architect’ would be familiar with. (Yes, we’re self-aware here on the Starship.) Please don’t make us add ‘storyteller’ to the top of the list.

What Even Makes a Good Story Anyway?

A good story sticks with you. It seeps into your bones. You’d remember it forever, because it probably changed part of you. That’s something that a good ad can share with a good story: the resonance. You can’t work in adland without being able to name your favourite ads. The ads that you watch and make you happy to be part of the industry. I’ll start. My favourite ad of all time so far is the Volkswagen Little Darth Vader ad:

Hugely successful, this Super Bowl commercial was said to have changed advertising. Strategy-wise, anyway. The ad was released pre-game, which was considered controversial at the time, at least in adland, which often has a strange idea of what it thinks should be ‘controversial’. It’s the most shared Super Bowl commercial of all time, and one of the most shared commercials anywhere, ever. Storywise, it’s simple: a little boy wants to be Darth Vader, but is unable to summon The Force until his father uses Volkswagen’s remote fob to make it look like he has. Hamlet it is not, but it’s clearly resonated with millions of people worldwide.

Still, the Little Darth commercial is an outlier. The vast majority of advertising, even 60 second ads, is built to push a product or service. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s what advertising is for. Making out people to be ‘storytellers’ can make creatives lose sight of what they’re in advertising to do: to work for a client. An ad that does nothing for a client–whether by increasing market share, pushing its bottom line, or fulfilling some other measure of KPI–is a failed ad.

Nice story, though.

You Can’t Deny Some Branded Content Are Great Stories, Karen.

Ahh branded content. These effectively long-form ads don’t always push products or services, and are often, in their best forms, pretty much sponsored short films. There are also some literal stories: KFC, for example, famously created a romance novel for Mother’s Day. There have been great films pushing social issues that resonate with a core audience, such as Shiseido’s “Marriage Market” short. And, more recently, Apple got acclaimed director Peter Chan to film a short film called “Three Minutes“, using the iPhone X, about motherhood, Chinese New Year, and sacrifice.

Great branded content is an outlier. Few brands can be persuaded to go to the expense or the trouble. When executed well, good content can do more than make a brand stand out in the marketplace: great, sticky content will resonate with consumers, leaving a mark in today’s ultra-competitive world. But at its core, branded content is still advertising. An expensive piece of content that does nothing for a client in any way will mean an unhappy client, and rightfully so.

Good stories do stand out from the noise. That’s why the classics last the test of time. It’s hard to imagine an ad having the lasting power of 14th Century’s Romance of Three Kingdoms, and that’s probably a good thing. We’re not in this industry to create the next War and Peace. We’re here for our clients. We may not all be storytellers the way we’d like to be, and–unpopular opinion–that’s fine. We’re adland people.

Now if you’d excuse me, I’m going to try to finish reading Ulysses.

About the Author: Anya is the head of branding at Starship. Her first novel, the Firebird’s Tale, was published in 2016, and her short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily SF, Giganotosaurus, and other magazines. 

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