Friday, December 4, 2009

Storytelling, Part 2 - You Must BE the Story

On the same day that I posted my thoughts about how storytelling alone was not enough in an advertising message, I spotted the following tweet from Gennefer Snowfield (@Gennefer), one of the people I enjoy following on Twitter:

After pointing her to my post (in a completely self-serving gesture) we had a brief but stimulating chat about the issue. She concluded: “At the core, I think we're saying similar things. Even a good story needs a strategy. Let's call them advertising parables!”

In that exchange, Gennefer also made a reference to the late-80s TV campaign for Nescafe Gold Blend as being an example of spots that both entertained and sold. I remembered those spots…and I remembered the buzz they created at the time. News coverage at the time reported that they had totally captivated the U.K. And here in the U.S. – within ad agency circles at least – they were for a time the hot topic (topics never stay hot for long within ad agency circles).

Revisiting some of the commercials in the campaign ( I was struck by the one key ingredient to the mix that I had left out of my earlier post (in which I did not say storytelling didn’t work, just that it was not enough – you have to sell, too): the product was inextricably tied to the story.

And that led me to remember an article I'd once read about the legendary radio advertising team of Dick & Bert. Through the late '70s and early '80s, Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis brought fresh creative thinking to radio commercials for a long roster of clients, not the least of which was Time magazine.

They were playing on another level entirely. Note this story from The New York Times of June 11, 1981, noting that Dick & Bert had won Clios in 5 product categories when no other agency or production company had won more than two. >>

Anyway, I've always remembered one point Dick Orkin made in one of the many articles written about them at the time. He explained the first rule of their approach to writing a script: the humor had to spring from the product and the situation (today I believe we would say that's being “organic”). You couldn't simply through in a bunch of jokes and have a spot.

In fact, Orkin said, if you could remove the product from the script and have the jokes remain intact, you had failed.

What could easily happen today with the surge of interest in storytelling is to have stories in which the product is simply a bit player. I can easily imagine a spot where two older men, feeling marginalized by today's world, take off to the woods and lakes of Minnesota for a weekend of fishing. There they ponder their respective roads not taken, reflect on the days of their youth and ultimately agree that life is still pretty great. And when it's over, we see the logo for a manufacturer of aluminum fishing boats.

Taking that approach is nothing more than a glorified product placement. But instead of giving your product a cameo in a movie or a TV show, you've done it in your own advertising!

So, following Dick Orkin's rule, if you can take the product or service out of your story and still have a's time to start over.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Storytelling is a great thing. For stories.

These days, I read and hear a lot about the value of storytelling. Some would have you believe that today's consumers are just too smart for anything as overt as advertising. Instead, they must be engaged by a story. I remain unconvinced.

When I first started out in advertising, as a copywriter with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, one of the first things I was taught was: Yes, a commercial must be memorable...but the most important thing the viewer needs to remember is the name of the product.

Back then, it was said that the Curse of Creative was to have a TV spot that consumers could recount almost shot for shot, re-telling it in amazing detail...and then not be able to remember what product or service the commercial was for. That spot, I learned, had failed in the most basic and fundamental way.

Fast forward, oh…let's just say a good number of years. One morning my wife came into my home office to tell me that she'd just seen a commercial with a tag line she really liked. “It said, 'Inner Space. Outer Beauty.' It was for a car.”

“A car.” Think that’s close enough for Lincoln? (It's for the Lincoln MKT)

Around the same time, we were visiting friends and the conversation turned to TV commercials. One of them, her face brightening as she spoke, just had to tell us about her current favorite. “It's the one where the car drives by and all the colorful flowers and trees turn into people. I don't know what car it was for, though.” I suspect most of you will recognize it as one for the Toyota Prius. But she loved that spot.

Then, lest you think all I care about is cars and car commercials (which is only partially true), there was another visit with friends during which one of them went positively rhapsodic about a TV spot broadcast locally here in Albuquerque.

I won't “name names” but it had to do with a new home community. And this commercial was truly a story, though somewhat subtle in approach (indeed, on my first viewing I wondered if the attention level it required wasn't unrealistically high). She retold the story, right down to the meaning of the flashback and the symbolic device in it. The commercial had obviously made a strong impression on our friend and she was quite moved by the story it told.

You know what's coming, don't you? Right. Beyond the category, she couldn’t remember anything about the advertiser.

And it's not just “ordinary consumers” either. In this next example, I will name names...because the “consumer” happened to be a business journalist. I witnessed this as I watched a recent episode of John McElroy's excellent webcast, “Autoline After Hours.”

John threw out to his regular guests this question from a viewer:

“Why are car manufacturer’s commercials on TV today so awful? And why are tire manufacturers making more exciting TV commercials?”

David Welch, Detroit bureau chief for Business Week, agreed with the viewer’s opinion of tire company commercials and made this observation:

“One of the tire companies has those Mr. Potato Head commercials that are kind of funny. And there’s another one – I can’t remember who does it – but there’s another one…I remember seeing it…but it’s a great performance commercial…I forget which tire company.”

Folks, this is a man who covers the automobile industry. I’d like to think that if anyone was going to be attuned to the commercials in that category, it would be someone like David Welch.

Now, I’m not criticizing Mr. Welch. Rather, my point is that too often the creators of TV commercials still fall down on the fundamentals, even when the story they have to tell is powerful and the audience is already interested and “leaning their way.”

Of course, this is all anecdotal. None of what I’ve shared here is statistically valid. But I’m inclined to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is simply money not well spent. It accomplishes nothing if you’ve entertained your audience and given them all something to ooh and ahh about with their families, friends and co-workers…but you couldn’t even get your client’s name to register.

A great story? Fine. But…what? Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t get your name.