Sunday, August 11, 2013

Will The Next Person To Use The Word 'Storytelling' Please Report For Their Slap

What we do is increasingly being called 'storytelling' but actually I think that definition is completely wrong, and it's really starting to annoy me.

Yes, ads do often have a narrative. This brilliant spot that came out last week, for Devondale Dairy Soft butter, uses many common narrative techniques - it has an 'inciting incident', comedic misunderstanding, and even a twist. Not bad for a film that's only 30 seconds long and also sells a product. But it's still not a story.


 
A story - lest we forget - has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Ads very rarely conform to this definition. The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is Chipotle's Back To The Start. (Interestingly, it was also produced by the Hollywood agents CAA rather than an ad agency...)

But I would argue it may actually be a bad thing for an ad to tell a proper story. Reason being that a proper story has a definitive ending. E.g. at the end of Titanic, Jack dies. (Apologies if you're a teenage girl who unaccountably hasn't seen it yet). This is why sequels are nearly always worse than the original - the original story has finished. But brands don't want their story to end. They want it to go on and on.

Another important difference is that a story is about a character (or occasionally a group or community) that undergoes significant change. E.g. at the beginning of The Lion King, Simba is a naive young cub. He then goes through a period of adolescent irresponsibility ("Hakuna matata") before finishing up as the wise and mature leader of his tribe.

So although a brand 'has a character' e.g. it might be fun-loving or stylish, we don't want that character to change, we actually want it to stand for something fixed, so that people know exactly the role it can play in their lives. 

Brands often have an 'origin story' (example - Innocent smoothies "we made smoothies at a festival and put up a sign saying 'should we quit our jobs to make smoothies instead?' and had two big bins marked 'yes' and 'no' for people to vote with their empty bottles"). But this is normally better told through PR rather than advertising. Innocent should stand for naturalness, not entrepreneurialism.

Please note I'm not arguing against interactivity, or what is today being called 'letting consumers be part of the story.' Interactivity is great, but what consumers should be interacting with is not 'a story' but 'a quality of the brand' or 'the brand's point of view'. 

For example, IKEA's fantastic Facebook Showroom app, which allowed people to tag an IKEA item online with their name if they befriended the store's manager, was not about letting consumers be part of a story but rather enabling them to experience a quality of IKEA ('quirky good value').

Yes, the use of the word 'storytelling' is probably just a language issue, and advertising has long been the victim of a succession of stupid buzzwords, but I do worry that incorrect language can lead to a proliferation of wrong behaviour. In our case, a bunch of charlatans jumping out of the woodwork claiming that we all ought to be 'storytellers'.

Or am I getting upset about nothing?

39 comments:

Charles Frith said...

Agreed.

Paul Ducco said...

All valid/good points Simon, and great to see animation high on the story-told agenda.

Anonymous said...

What about Carlton's Beer Chase - seemed like it had a clear beginning, middle & end to me.

Scamp said...

True. No character development though.

Pete said...

Well said. Particularly the element of "change". I do like the devondale spot and since reading your post I wanted to think of a way to include the "change" element. First thing that came to mind was the obvious being including 2 more executions that sees the girl "come of age" and therefore ending our journey with her. But the real challenge I would like to solve is having the "change" and "end" read in 30'. If we opened on the toast on the table and lost 2 seconds off the end frame we'd have 6 seconds to play with. The girl is trying to endear Mum as she has just seen her parents separate so some acceptance around that and becoming self assured could be one way - don't want to lose the comedy though...buggered if I know but would be fun to try and solve. Sorry for the long winded comment, but this shit fascinates me. PB from AD.

Nizzle said...

Scampy, I agree with your attack on the misuse of buzzwords. The whole 'storytelling' trend is not only overused, it's annoying. I do however disagree with your definition of a story. To me, a story is simply something that has an affect on another thing. I don't think it needs a beginning, a middle or an end. And it certainly doesn't need to have character development. Sure, most good stories do, but it's not absolutely necessary. Take this for an example, "i wrote a blog post on Scamp blog". That's a story, not a great one, but it's a story. It has no real defined beginning, middle or end. Has no character development. And there certainly is no 'Hero's Journey'. Yet, I told you the story. It's just shit, and not very entertaining. I guess what i'm trying to say is we can tell a story in 30 seconds, it's just not very good. But when us industry folk use the term 'storytelling', it's fairly gratuitous isn't it?

Scamp said...

Nizzle, thank you for your kind post in agreement with my argument. Maybe if we all simply refuse to use buzzwords, they will go away? Much in the fashion of bad ghost movies, where the characters simply decide 'not to believe' in the evil spirits, and they disappear. I do contend though, that your 'story' of "i wrote a blog post on Scamp blog" is actually a statement not a story. Minor linguistic distinction perhaps, but hey, that's the topic!

Jason said...

You're kinda right, but I think you fall into a common trap:

When using stories in brand communications, the brand isn't the character who goes on the journey and changes (ie the "hero", eg Simba), for the the totally valid reasons you outline about the brand being a fixed point of reference for people.

Rather, the hero is the viewer/customer, while the brand is more like Gandalf -the mentor who reveals or guides the quest or journey.

This isn't a bad summary: http://vimeo.com/50791810 (apart from the awful "digitoral" coinage)

Scamp said...

Interesting stuff, Jason. I do kinda buy that the brand is the mentor, and the hero who will have their life changed is the consumer. I guess it comes back to the old 'this product will change your life' schtick. Still means that an ad is not an actual story though, but rather a presentation of a life-changing opportunity. The actual change will take place in my life...once I've bought that lipstick, that chocolate bar...

CD said...

Unfortunately, that's blatantly incorrect. A story DOESN'T have to have a beginning, middle or end. That's only traditional 3 act storytelling.

A story is defined as a recounting of a series of events.

Check you dictionary -

sto·ry 1 (stĂ´r, str)
n. pl. sto·ries
1. An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious

Nothing there about a resolution.

Hey CD said...

Here's a good story.

There once was a blogger called CD.
He was a dickhead.
The End.

Scamp said...

CD - I guess I meant that a 'good' story has a beginning, middle, and an end. And a character who changes. Otherwise you've got a pretty dull tale...

Dude. said...

Tell that to Hemingway.

likesayarn said...

you have a very literal/incorrect interpretation of what a story is. A story doesn't have to conform to a three act structure to be a story. Eminem is a storyteller. So is Goya. It's about putting a frame around humanity for other humans to engage with and be effected by, regardless of a beginning, middle and end. I'd argue that every great ad is an example of storytelling and storytelling isn't a buzzword like synergy is a buzzword, its an proper word that creatives use to remind themselves that what they are doing has to connect viscerally with people and not just be a succession of meaningless marketing shit.

Scamp said...

Chaps, I challenge you to tell me about the Hemingway story or Eminem song (a good one) that doesn't have a narrative progression, and a character who changes. Yes, even Hemingway's famous six-word story has those.

Muzza said...

Scamp, I have a similar feeling about using the term 'film' to describe an ad. To me, making ads is what ad agencies do to sell products. Making films is what film makers do to tell a story.
Perhaps we should stop calling our ads 'films', stop worrying about whether we're meant to be 'storytellers' or not, and then we can all get on with making ads that sell products.
But, like you, maybe I'm just getting upset at nothing.

Anonymous said...

Yes you are worrying about nothing.

If an ad frames a scenario that lets the viewer feel a bigger narrative than shown then the story exists and unfolds.
Thats what this butter ad does.

Rob Hatfield said...

When I was stationed in England in the late seventies, I remember the Hovis bread ads as being very good. They told stories didn't they?

MOB RULE said...

I really like this post Scamp - but how would you review the classic Nescafé couple ads of the late 80s/early nineties or the still running (albeit, in the college years a-la saved by the bell) BT soap opera family? I understand how in one spot it's hard to tell a complete narrative that pulls on the emotional and the mental strings. But a lasting narrative seems to have a place - would love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Agree with likesayarn. A story about butter is boring. The way it's churned, the percentage of cream, the freshest packaging etc. Who cares?

But a story about a dysfunctional family having breakfast, a girl coming to terms with her stepfather, a blink of life which just happens to involve butter... that's interesting.

Your definition of storytelling is far too rigid, did you pick the Titanic as a example because someone dies?

Storytelling is the opposite of a buzzword. It's how humans empathise.

Scamp said...

Interesting point, last anon. And I love that phrase 'blink of life'. I can live with that. As long as it doesn't lead to a spate of articles saying we all need to become 'blinkers'...

WCD said...

Hi Scamp,

I'll tackle the Eminem part of this using Stan, perhaps his most famous song, the Dido one. (I'm not a big fan but this one comes directly to mind.)

Here's a link to the lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eminem/stan.html

There's certainly character development, a change, and certainly a story albeit a simple one.
Stan is a fan who writes to Eminem/Slim Shady in the first verse. It's a fan letter.
Second verse, the letter writer gets mad that he hasn't received a reply, we get more of his own back story. In the third verse, the writer/deranged fan's anger escalates even further and he cracks and ties his girlfriend up to drive the car off a bridge. He blames Slim for it.
Fourth verse shifts perspective to Slim/Em who tries to calm him down by writing. There's then a neat twist on the end.

Can't say that's not a story. The lyrics also double as a script for the video.





Scamp said...

Yup. Eminem's a storyteller. Mazda isn't.

Rebecca said...

I disagree that stories need an ending. I think that's a bit of an unprogressive attitude to text. Go and google Marshall McLuhan (although I would have thought he would be included in Advertising 101). He was a big fan of non-linear text and would have found this post very limiting.
A single image can tell a story, so why not a vignette?
You're also discounting oral culture, where stories are transient and changing.
Storytelling is about sharing something universal or sympathetic, or even difficult.

Yes, I am a literature major. You're lucky I didn't get out the #litmajorlemur

Rebecca.

Scamp said...

Oh dear. I was hoping it would be me that would dish out the slappings...

is this a story? said...

For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.

is this another story? said...

For sale. Giant dildo. Needs new batteries.

Old CD Guy said...

You're right again Scampi, my little clawed crustacean. Unfortunately advertising has always generated pretentious twaddle, a sort of language of its own to give it more gravitas, and to sound more scientific - and therefore justify charging at a preposterous rate'. It has also always managed to attract magnificently pretentious and rather intense types consumed with their own self-importance, such as 'CD' at 11:34AM, who I think we should immediately re-badge as 'Lord Shakespeare'.

director said...

This is a very narrow definition of what a story is and could be. To suggest that it must have a beginning, middle and end is extremely naive and implies a lack of understanding of the definition of story. Further... you've suggest that the brand is the only entity that can undergo a "transformation" - this ignores the fact that many ads are basically "sketches" wherein the characters undergo some sort of (sometimes minor) revelation and thus a transformation. This is a common comedic tool. The audience could also be the entity that undergoes a transformation... their understanding or perception of what they are watching can shift from start to finish.

Yes... ads don't have to be mini-feature films, but "storytelling" techniques are quite relevant to advertising, as much as you may hate to admit it. It's certainly an overused buzzword but I think you're barking up the wrong tree.

semantics aside said...

You've got to admit, it is a hugely overused buzz word. When clients start demanding stories and rejecting work without them, you know too much Kool Ad has been had. Sure it can help but it's not critical. Burst for example. Big Ad. Etc

Present Shock said...

Scamp, you have fallen victim to Frequency Illusion, amplified by Recency Effect. This is caused by the collapse of grand narratives and the death of meaning. Relax, dude.

Kathy said...

So, is that the whole story? Some great stories are told in slices or sections - Lord of the Rings was told in parts.

Maybe ads don't tell the whole story, but leave the viewer to imagine the beginning and end - like your butter ad.

We are far more likely to remember something that our mind engages with, rather than something we are told, which is why questions in ads have such high recall - you figured out the answer.

Maybe allowing people's imagination to create the rest of the story aids recall, IF the brand is integral to the story.

If it is bolted on and you can retell the slice of the story without mentioning the product, it doesn't matter what you call it, it didn't do it's job.

Dan said...

Good argument. This is testament to that. Great narrative. Inspired character.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=u69fdNxVW3g

Jeff said...

TV shows, for the most part, are also incomplete stories. The episodes resolve but some grand conflict hasn't. There is still an objective the characters are working towards. In the case of business this objective can be world domination or increased Q3 profits. Or some other goal entirely.

I agree that calling yourself a storyteller doesn't do you any favors. Screenwriters don't claim this, TV writers don't claim this, even a novelist might blush when called a storyteller. They don't need to refer to themselves that way to feel as though they tell stories. There's already an implicit understanding that that's what they do.

It's The rampant insecurities of ad creatives (and the drive to seem more magical than we are) that drives people to adopt titles like "storyteller." Because sometimes people find it more comfortable to go to bed at night thinking they're a storyteller than a shill for cereal.

junior said...

I don't know if I agree with EVERY example you provided as to what is and isn't a story, but I completely agree with your premise: the word "story" (and "storytelling" for that matter) is being overused in advertising, in music reviews, in articles about branding and marketing, etc. I am interested in storytelling and have a Google Alert setup on just that word and I'm flummoxed at all the ways people are finding to use it. I cannot wait for the new buzzword to arrive so this round of craziness can subside!

likesayarn said...

narrative progression and a beginning, middle and end are not the same thing - you can have narrative progression without a linear narrative - ever seen Pulp Fiction? Another way to demonstrate my point that a story doesn't need a 3 act structure to be a good story is to say you can tell a story with just one image. Here's Goya's "Third of May" - it tells the story of Spanish resistance during the Napoleonic Wars.

http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/goya/goya.shootings-3-5-1808.jpg

also, I dont hear storytelling enough in advertising, so if you're hearing it everyday, your agency must be making some fine work indeed. Id suggest patting people on the back for it rather than slapping them.

Alex said...

Really nice ad. But since I've noticed that, at :9, she mouths a different word than what she says, it's really bugging me.

Time for lunch.

RM said...

Great post Simon as always. For me the storytelling analogy is not literally telling a story in a 30 sec TVC but when all the various comms of the campaign come together and the 'story' or meaning of the brand shines through. The Nike ad is great in that it reinforces their beliefs to me

matt pulanglupa said...

Hi scamp,
I'm a fan of your blog but well, I almost agreed on this term 'storytelling'
But...
I can say the butter ad has a story:
'A mad teenage girl offers surprisingly a toast with hard fresh butter to her mother to bribe her not to marry the man in front of her?

When Spielberg pitched his E.T. story to the producer demanded to cut tho the chase. Spielberg quickly responded,
'Lost alien befriends boy to get home'

There's the story in one line.