Why Your Advertising Should Be More Like Anna Karenina

4 min read

47211_1_Flv_320x240_thumb_9It’s all about storytelling. How many times have you heard that one?

It’s been a popular Digital Age trope: Today, marketing is all about storytelling. Nobody’s interested in “advertising” anymore. Now you’ve got to “engage your customers with stories.”

About half of the above paragraph is hogwash.

Because nobody has ever been interested in advertising. And marketing has always been about storytelling. And I’m not sure most of the people who embrace the idea of storytelling really know what that means–because they don’t really understand the idea of story.

Not all writing is story. Some writing is reportage–which can tell a story. Some poems tell a story. We think of fiction as providing stories–but not all fiction involves story. Some fiction doesn’t really tell a story at all.

Story requires change. If nothing changes by the end of the story, it’s not a story. It may be a vignette or a slice of life, but it’s not a story.

In the best stories, the reader is among the things changed. I’ve read a few beach novels this year, and they were fun stories–but I can barely remember them. I also read Anna Karenina and The Quiet American and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriageand they changed the way I thought about the world. Those are powerful stories.

Those are the kinds of stories we’re trying to tell in advertising (and why we have so many writers on staff at WDM). They’re stories that change something in the people they reach–cause them to take action or change their minds or consider doing something different.

There’s a lot of slice-of-life advertising out there, and some of it works. For example, Target does a great job of producing stylish, fun commercials in which nothing happens. Check out this little romp in which the only things that change are the models:


No story to speak of. Nothing shot in the store. So why is this a good commercial? Or is it?

I say it is, and that there’s actually a story there. It’s a story in which something, Target hopes, is triggered in the viewer, which may be nothing more than, “That’s right–I have to go to Target (and, hey! That’s a pretty cute top).”

But, like a beach novel, you won’t remember this commercial in a month. You may not remember it in a day–or even remember you’ve seen it right after you’ve seen it. That was never the commercial’s intention. It just wanted to get you into the store.

In the hands of a professional storyteller, that sort of spot can be a beautiful thing–more like a little work of art than a story, per se. The problem is, most of these kinds of spots are dreadful. Think about nearly any TV spot for “your hometown (fill in the blank),” featuring shots of ethnically diverse people enjoying your local bank or insurance company or convenience store. Or this very expensive stinker that you’ve almost certainly seen:

The problem with that spot (other than the obscene amount of money the client must have spent on production) is that it’s not remotely funny. It’s bad storytelling. Once the premise has been established, you can see every joke from the next area code. (They also, for some reason, thought we needed to see the big word “humans” sitting in the middle of the street. And, Paul Giamatti: Don’t quit your day job. This may be the worst celebrity voiceover ever.) You hope the spots had their intended effect, which, to my mind, was making the honchos at Liberty Mutual feel really important.

Now watch this:

Is it cheesy? Perhaps. Predictable? Probably. Is it great literature? Hell, no. But if you are unmoved, you are a mackerel.

Or perhaps you’re not a boy or girl who grew up in the Northern Plains in a simpler time, when a bike was nothing less than your first real taste of freedom. Because, ultimately, that’s who this spot was intended to move: Canadian men and women having families and consuming material goods in the 1980s.

But even if you’re a city kid in 2014, that spot tells a beautiful, complete story that is connected inexorably with the brand. Chances are good you’ll remember it, even if you see it only once.

Compare that with the Liberty Mutual spot that cost many times more to produce and required about a billion exposures before you got it through your head that the advertiser was Liberty Mutual–if you ever got that through your head at all. For all that money they spent, it’s predictable, boring, generic advertising that doesn’t really tell you anything about the brand.

Want to do great advertising? Tell a great story that’s truly connected with your brand. It can be funny or charming or enraging or empowering. It can be long or short, a blog post or a TV spot or a brochure or a digital ad.

But it has to be a story. Let us know if you want any help with that.