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.

Saki put it best: “In baiting a mousetrap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse.” Ads that require your participation, that present a puzzle to be solved, already have your attention. The really clever ones can leave you basking in an intellectual afterglow, like a prefrontal orgasm: your reward for expending effort on behalf of the brand. And in that moment, brands are at their most persuasive. What could be a better sales technique than convincing the buyer he thought it up himself?

Whether visual or text-based, retro or contemporary, print ads succeed when they engage you in a game.

The same holds for true other media. Take this Ikea billboard.

Whatever this billboard is doing, it is not telling a story. Rather, it’s asking you to reconfigure an unexpected image—to briefly decode the rules that govern this scene. At 60 miles an hour, they don’t need to be complicated: in this case the item and its price tag are ontologically swapped. But the pleasure of that recognition is the inherent pleasure of games.

What defines a story and what defines a game, and how much they overlap, are higher-order questions than advertising needs to answer. Lee Clow famously suggested that “The Apple Store is probably the best ad [Apple] ever did.” Are the Apple Stores examples of environmental storytelling? Maybe. They’re clearly an exercise in worldbuilding. But as with video games, their principal mechanism seems not to be narrative, but play: the thrill of being let loose in an unknown system and testing its rules. The immediacy of unscripted interaction.

The most famous campaigns from the past 20 years, from Subservient Chicken to Nike+ to Red Bull Stratos, share this gaming DNA. Narratives are often built into or around them—as product launches or “branded content”, as news events or PR coups—but narrative is incidental to their enduring appeal. At their most elemental, these ads are expressions of play.

Even celebrated TV spots, when you examine them, don’t look much like conventional stories. The Saturn commercial below, for instance, is not the tale of an autoless society in which people walk down roads.

It’s more like a test: can you decipher the rules of this world? Can you figure out what the ad is going to tell you before it tells you? Whether you can or can’t, that knowledge gap is what makes the commercial compelling.

Some TV spots go a step further, recording a playful moment without bogging it down in any semblance of story. They often feel lighter and less cynical as a result. Ikea executes this perfectly:

People love monkeys, no doubt. But it’s the snapshot of chaotic, joyful play that anchors the message and resonates with the viewer. Kitchens can be a locus of messy fun; with the right appliances and design (supplied by the right brand), yours can be too.

Stories aren’t going anywhere, needless to say. Creative advertising values insights—sometimes those insights are best consumed passively, and sometimes the right tools are psychological realism and dramatic composition.

Story remains a powerful lens for viewing anything at all.

But play is advertising’s great skill, its strongest foundation. When we recognize and respect that, good creative follows.

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