The advertising industry’s move to push narratives, ties back to brand journalism and the idea that your product should have a core story tells us about ourselves through the lens (and the product) of the advertiser. However that doesn’t mean that a brand is cemented in the story it tells; rather, the story is a vessel for the brand and that vessel can (and should) change much like chapters in a book. Before the examples here, we saw advertisers playing with storytelling through Coke and (perhaps most memorably through perfected crafting) with Google India. The fact that we’re seeing these three viral ads, two of which are for lesser-known organizations, reinforces the practices and proves we’re hurdling in a storytelling direction at record speed. This means that marketers and advertisers who can’t develop a compelling story, won’t get very far. For those still scratching their heads at the drawing board, here’s a tip: if you want people to talk about you, you have to talk about them. Save the Children UK’s second-a-day ad, chronicling the life of an average school girl, went viral because it took a globally recognized issue that (over the course of a three year on going civil war), we’ve become distanced from. They bridge that gap by showing what it would be like if the problem over “there” hit home. Getting the average person to relate to something so complex and remote is a challenge. Save the Children keeps the concept simple by looking at the core humanitarian issues suffered by children; they don’t get caught up in geopolitics. As Time Magazine noted, a similar gesture was made by SOS Children’s Villages, a Norwegian nonprofit that “recently staged a candid camera ad featuring a freezing boy at a bus stop.” The story here was in documenting the reaction of the passers, nearly all of whom couldn’t help but act. The climax here is (brilliantly) in the passerby’s actions; they take the jacket of their back and offer it to the boy. A noble but simple gesture that punctuates the organizations point clearly: (a) this is one child you can see while there are many you cannot, and (b) if you can help him so easily, what about the hundreds of thousands Syrian refugees. It’s not everyday that a non-profit organization makes the headlines for their advertising. Causes, in general, seem to be doing a great job of this in recent times – and the Google Glass commercial highlighting the very grave issue domestic abuse in commemoration of the annual Women’s Day, was no lesser feat. Turning the page of a different story, iPad Air’s visionary ad that captures and inspires us, was in short, nothing less than what they were asking us to do. Using classic storytelling mediums of sights, sounds, and story, the advertising geniuses behind the ad created something beautiful artistic in the process – an ad that rushed toward us and whirled around us, playfully dancing to both verse and song, pushing us to do the same. Apple also set up a “Your Verse” page on its website, whose (according to BGR) “main purpose is to capture the many ways people use its iPads in different parts of the world.” These ads went viral but not in the way you’d imagine it. In a truly viral campaign, you’re going to a percentage of your viewers sharing repeatedly because they’re that moved your ad. They’ll share it the once; and then they’ll share it once or twice more over a few days because they want to make sure their network sees this video. They aren’t done discussing your ad. They want to conversation to continue. Here you don’t have the case of a serial ‘click share’ – rather, you’ve got someone for whom the message or the story in the ad has resonated so much that it has stayed with them beyond the share. Multiple shares are the mark of a great story. A great story doesn’t just get told once, it gets told by each listener and repeatedly to (sometimes the same but often) new listeners. Today’s advertisers realize you can tell a “micro-story” in just a few minutes – especially if you pair raw creativity with a winning formula.
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.