In the battle for our attention, advertisers are now turning to the Holy Grail of marketing that has dominated the landscape for the last year: storytelling. Stories are as old as we are. They’re perhaps the most fundamental part of our humanity and that is why they stick with us even today in a technology dominated era. If you look at viral advertising campaigns in the last year, chances are they are ads that had a storytelling strategy. The examples here, the most radically viral ad campaigns this season, have all had the same storytelling vein in their campaigns. From war in London, to a day in the life, and a re-imagined classic, each visual narrative captured our attention by being nothing less than an epic story.
The ads that I’ve tracked as having been most widely circulated and most talked about include (1) Save the Children UK’s ad showing what it would be like if the Syrian war occurred in a Western territory; (2) Google Glass’-inspired PSA for International Women’s Day, created by a team of London creatives with no affiliation to Google; (3) iPad Air’s rendition of a classic Walt Whitman poem, packaged in such a monumentally creative vessel that most don’t even know they’re listening to (or liking) classic poetry. The latter is perhaps the most innovative of the three, as Forbes writer Mark Rogowsky phrases it in an article titled Apple’s Latest Ad is Pure Poetry, “A commercial for a new tablet using dialog from a 25-year-old movie, delivered by a 62-year-old actor, quoting from a 114-year-old poem? Are they crazy?”
It would seem so, but the ad, like the others here, is nothing short of clever…and brave. So what do these three ads have in common?
Harrison Monarth of Harvard Business Review recalls the nativity of storytelling. In an HBR post called “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool,” Monarth writes, “We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.” Citing Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, Monarth credits storytelling’s ability to “evoke a strong neurological response.” Monarth offers Freytag’s Pyramid, a simple storytelling structure that moves along the five points necessary for effective storytelling: (Act 1) Exposition, (Act 2) Complication, (Act 3) Climax, (Act 4) Reversal, and (Act 5) Denouement.
Act 1: Exposition
A micro-story ad starts off by laying the foundation and opening the door to a wider sequence of actions.
Act 2: Complication
Called a “rising action”, a complication is a folding or layering or events. This is where one point or action blends into another to create a more dynamic story with various (yet related) points.
Act 3: Climax
Here we have the pivotal turning point. Here is where it all changes.
Act 4: Reversal
The consequence of a climax, the “reversal” mirrors the “complication” in the pyramid. It’s part a reflection of the complication and in part a sequence of events toward Act 5.
Act 5: Denouement
Called the “moment of release”, the denouement in ads differs from traditional storytelling because it doesn’t look to tie loose ends. They’re not necessarily offering you a resolution or telling you what happens. In advertising, act 5 is where the point is driven home.