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.

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