Advertising Isn’t Storytelling

Narrative doesn't describe the structure of a good ad. So what does?

In advertising, everybody wants to be a storyteller.

Maybe that’s because the word evokes a familiar mystique—a nostalgia for the time when ads were so novel and slick that people accused them of hidden agendas and subliminal hijinks.

Maybe it’s because the “storytelling” conceit dresses up awkward truths about what it means to work as a creative in a commercial space, constantly defending matters of gut, jockeying for position as a representative member of “the least important most important thing there is,” in Don Draper’s succinct formulation.

Storytelling gives our jobs a coherence and a point: it ties together every subjective choice and asserts that their sum is greater than the parts. It dumbly gesticulates toward a unified field theory in which the brand exists in perfect harmony with the company it fronts—as well as all past and future marketing efforts. And it helpfully erases the fingerprints of creatives themselves: “telling a brand’s story” presupposes that some version of the story was always there, waiting to be plucked from the ether by a creative medium and midwifed into tangibility.

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.

Julie Creswell’s great piece on Sears illustrates this new reality. The iconic retailer began as a salesman’s fever dream and innovated its way across the 20th century; now it limps along in a state of predeath, squeezed for every last penny through the financial engineering of its majority shareholder. While it once played the protagonist in some grand narrative of American retail, populated by icons like the mail-order catalogue and suburban stripmalls, Sears is just another flailing Amazon competitor today.

In 2017, whether a company thrives or struggles, its story is usually one of acquisition, scalability, and creative accounting. That’s not necessarily an indictment (though John Oliver offers a cutting one). But it does make CMOs who extol “authenticity” sound faintly ridiculous. Odds are good the brands they champion are one of a vast constellation of similar companies in a private equity fund or holding company portfolio, steered by the same market forces as their corporate kin.

Globalization, and the immense thicket of supply chains that undergird it, have in a way neutered the potency of brand stories—ironed out the kinks of differentiation and regional flavor that are the foundation of traditional storytelling. Stories are inherently local, even parochial: anchored to a place, a person, a set of circumstances, they reflect a particular worldview. As brands become increasingly global, they’re less able to tell that kind of story credibly.

And it’s hard to understand why they would ever want to. Advertising is an objectively terrible format for storytelling. Even the famed 60 second commercial, that fading holy grail, is ill suited to it. Good stories—the ones we watch on TV or film, read in prestigious weekly magazines, remember from our high school English classes—reward characterization, voice, humanity, and a bunch of other nuanced literary stuff. Commercials aren’t given enough breathing room to hit those notes.

Of course, many great story-driven commercials do exist; some are responsible for attracting creatives to advertising in the first place. But those are the outliers, as any casual TV watcher can attest. The vast majority of narrative spots are hammy and trite. Operas are more emotionally grounded. Conflating advertising with storytelling doesn’t set a high bar for quality; it commits a category mistake, dooming creatives to work with the wrong set of tools. The real power of advertising is in its interactivity.

Print ads plainly demonstrate this. Print is often cited as the purest advertising medium—if an idea can satisfy in two dimensions, it must have some validity—so it’s telling that print rarely traffics in narrative. Part of it is that nobody has the patience to read bricks of copy and that awards juries favor visual solutions and so forth. But maybe the most salient reason is that good print is more like a game than a story, and good creatives understand this intuitively.