Advertising is as much about storytelling as about selling, the two should go hand in hand.
Posted - 29 January, 2018
The structure of story:
The Status Quo
Our story starts in a normal place with a normal person doing things that they’re used to doing.
Let’s say it’s a woman. She is, perhaps, insecure, but smart and capable, though maybe restricted by the structures of her current life.
She is our protagonist. Her arc starts here.
It starts with the insecurities, the currently held views and knowledge of her normal (but maybe extraordinary to you, the audience) world, her ‘normal’ life.
The Inciting Incident
Until something happens.
Something big, or world shifting or just something that makes her take a left instead of a right one morning.
And here, the journey begins.
She’ll start to understand the incident and why it might have an impact on her old life, the ‘normal’ life that is quickly slipping away and the story, stumbles, thrusts and tiptoes along. Veering away from the status quo.
At this stage she’ll likely meet a guide, a fairy god-mother or a Jedi knight; an older, wiser exponent of exposition that will help fill the gaps in the new, intriguing events surrounding her. They’ll tell her of a challenge to overcome and, in doing so, also push the story into new depths – maybe revealing the reason things have changed or unveiling a darkly shrouded baddy (our antagonist) in the distance. They may also escalate her story to new heights – revealing hidden powers she may have or secret potential. Answering some questions but creating more mysteries, maybe even providing her with a ‘mystery box’ to open when the time is right.
Crossing the Threshold
Next she’ll take the plunge. With the new information she’s been given she will choose, or be forced to leave her old life behind entirely and forge forward into the unknown.
Trials and Tribulations
Trials abound, fundamentally unsettling creatures (human or otherwise) are encountered some are defeated, some become allies but all teach our hero new things. She armours herself with new knowledge and arms herself with new skills (or maybe actually weapons – it really depends on the story). Threads are set up to be concluded later on, other characters’ arcs are established and everything gets more and more exciting and action packed.
The Main Ordeal
All of this builds to one big ordeal, the big set piece, the show down, the throw down, the conversation, argument and revelation that the story has been building towards.
She’ll use everything she’s learnt, while being supported by her allies, deploying her skills, weapons and armour to great effect and maybe even opening that mystery box revealing something that will give her the edge she needs to overcome.
Transformation and Growth
Knowledge is gained, the evil defeated the advisor vindicated, the mystery solved. Our hero is victorious and she will have gained new powers because of it. Whether this means something as simple as being contented rather than insecure (finalising her arc) or actually becoming super-powered – it depends entirely on the world built around her.
The Journey Home
As the dust settles she’ll begin the journey home. And with her will go her new powers, knowledge and friends. The other characters’ arcs will be concluded along the way and loose story threads will be tied up (or if you’re any Hollywood blockbuster new story threads will be endlessly set up to begin an exhausting string of sequels and spin-offs).
Return to the Status Quo
Eventually she’ll reach her normal life and return all to the status quo, but now she’ll have an edge, a defined remedy to those challenging things she once had to deal with. She’ll better cope with the norm because of how she has changed. And life will go on, though better than before, with the knowledge that everything’s not normal all of the time.
Sometimes, there’s a damn good story out there.
Story in Advertising
Not every tale will go this way, that structure is really just a skeleton to hang a story on and skeletons come in all shapes and sizes, but they generally have the same kind of parts.
But as you read the above you hopefully saw similarities with a hundred books, poems, films and maybe even adverts. Because that’s the point of this post: Good content, good advertising (some would say the best advertising) uses engaging storytelling to get their message across.
We humans can tell a good story from a bad and we’re all suckers for a good one. We’ll sit by the fire and listen to myths about our ancestors and we’ll spend billions to see and hear those same stories re-told on a twenty-meter high screen only this time the gods are portrayed by Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson.
If your adverts tell a good story, in a single line, a series of images, or a 30-second television advert, audiences will respond. There’s so much out there that’s just trying to sell that it’s hard to stand out, but a good story can enrapture an audience.
Show us some examples, you say?
Dove Men Care
Here’s one example of a story from a series of ads for a campaign Dove ran promoting their brand, of course, but also bringing families together.
The story uses the approach of first delivering a status quo to audiences: a family man who’s also a soldier is often away from his children. We learn about his connection with his daughter and his life and then that he had to leave for a tour of duty while his son was about to be born. The build is delivered with emotion as he expresses how hard it’s been to be away and then the climax breaks this down offering a resolution to the story (no spoilers here) and delivering Dove’s message.
YouTube comment highlight:
‘Damn you dove. Not only do you moisten my skin but now you moisten my eyes.’
One Last Breath
This award winning campaign was designed to highlight the dangers of swimming in reservoirs. They used immersive, and somewhat shocking, storytelling to resonate with audiences. Settling audiences into the narrative with a recognisable status quo, friends relaxing on a summer’s day. It builds to the climax and sets up a reveal and presents the new much darker status quo at the close.
This reversal of the traditional structure (upsetting and introducing a new status quo, rather that the central characters’ success and return) can be just as (if not more) effective in getting your message across. This works because it is at odds with our expectation of narrative and can therefore be more resonant with audiences.
Breaking Down Walls: Wall and Chain
Here we have a recognisably traditional story with a beautiful animation style. Airbnb are all about human connection and world travel, this positive message not only engages audiences and is a force for good, but happens to make them money.
That’s their brand story and they’re good at it.
All of that is distilled in this film they created, based on a true story:
Again we see the pattern of traditional story here. The world and central character is established, a challenge is presented, the central climax is the journey he takes and the resolution is satisfying, wholesome and positive. We leave our main character a changed and better person.
YouTube comment highlight:
‘Lovely advert, if you can even call it that’
A comment that speaks volumes about the power of story – this commenter wasn’t even sure they were being sold to.
This campaign was designed to engage audiences with real, relatable individuals and their stories of success. These narratives showcase the ways those people have changed their lives with help from the Open University. Their brand narrative is one of inclusiveness and change and that’s what this campaign captured.
You may have gathered by now that this was one of ours (we wanted to show that we use these techniques too). We used the narrative structure to develop the advert, first by presenting the central character’s backstory and the challenges he faced and then presenting the journey he has been on (and is still on) to reach his goals and overcome these challenges.
Some Toys Never Die
Even genre stories can enter the realm of advertising storytelling. One such campaign was Duracell’s ‘Some Toys Never Die’. Delivering their consistent and fundamental sales message (long-lasting batteries) as ever, but through a spooky horror infused narrative.
Here we see the traditional story structure deployed through imagery and one line of copy alone. An old toy was discarded from its old life (the status quo) and has returned for, we presume, revenge. The image presents the imminent climax, the central ordeal of the story – our imaginations are left to fill in the conclusion.
(As far as we’re concerned Woody and Buzz fly in to save the day – roll credits.)