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.
Now that we’re acquainted with Freytag’s Pyramid, the formula used in the three viral ads we’re looking at, it’s time to see how the theory was applied in each case. Save the Children’s “This is What War Does to Children” Act 1: Exposition Its purpose in laying foundation and opening the door to a wider sequence of actions, the exposition is made up of an opening where we see a young girl celebrating her birthday. Act 2: Complication A series of actions building the story in anticipation of the climax, here we have additional compounded seconds of her day that stitch a portrait of her life before war. Act 3: Climax War strikes London, a parallel world scenario highlighting the case for Syrian children. Act 4: Reversal The reversal is part mirror for Act 2, the complication, and part bridge to Act 5. Now that war has hit London, we see what this little girl’s life is like in the ensuing days. We can’t help but notice how it’s a downward spiral of the life she led before, growing grimmer by the day. Even the aid that we think would be of value has little effect on the disparity of her situation and the trauma she’s already faced. Act 5: Denouement Called ‘the release’, the denouement is often to spot in which advertisers try to drive the point home. A year has passed since the ad began and we see her now a year later celebrating her birthday as a completely different girl in a completely different world – with no hope of escape to home lost to war. PSA for International Women’s Day Act 1: Exposition With no affiliation to or endorsement from Google, a team of London creatives set up a PSA ad highlighting domestic violence during a spotlight in this year’s International Women’s day. The premise includes a proverbial walk in someone else’s shoes – which seems a little awkward at first, but we quickly gain balance and stride along with this bright, upbeat 20 or 30 something woman. Act 2: Complication Walking in someone else’s shoes is a tall order, especially for an ad slot. The goal here is to get you to feel like her or at least relate to her. Advertisers don’t have the time for this, obviously, so they do it in round about ways. It’s the wardrobe choices, where she lives, how she interacts with others – all these details paint a picture of a young middle to upper-middle class woman who is happy, kind, trendy, and non-threatening. In a nutshell, she’s the girl next door; the girlfriend you feel totally at ease with. Act 3: Climax Here the climax starts by throwing us just a little off balance as the woman returns from her day out running errands and meeting friends. Everyone she’s engaged with, and everyone we’ve engaged with including her, has been positive. Yet, when she comes home we see her significant other at a distance (a new perspective separate from everyone else in the shot), and he isn’t responding. We know something is wrong and the climax hits us the moment he interacts with her, when he infers that she’s done something wrong that most others would see as an insignificant detail. Act 4: Reversal In this case the reversal lasts just a few seconds, from the time that he “greets” her to the time that the abuse begins. Recalling that a reversal is often a mirror of the complication, we see the stark antithesis here what we imagined her life to be like and what it is. Act 5: Denouement The PSA hits home here when our “eyes” into her life are knocked off and we’re watching her from one corner of the room – watching and unable to act. It may seem like a small detail but this in fact where the denouement (or the point to drive home) occurs. Like a fly on the wall, we see the horror this likeable woman endures, and we leave the ad shocked by our own ignorance in thinking that only a certain demographic of women suffer abuse when in fact abuse pervades these fictitious boundaries. iPad Air’s “O Me! O Life!” Act 1: Exposition Pair a Walt Whitman poem, “O Me! O Life!” recited by Robin Williams (in Dead Poet’s Society), and with a very cool composition and larger-than-life images. It’s genius and it’s one of the few advertisements that we can’t help but get drawn into for its sensory stimulation. The exposition starts out with just slow introductory musical tones, and great sweeping images captured as if we were there experiencing these sights. Act 2: Complication The complication is pursued cinematically, with a blend of images and perfectly metered lines that flow seamless. In this case, the goal is to create the set up for the climax through lines that tell us why we pursue poetry, and how poetry is ingrained in to the fabric of what it means to be human. Note the continuing momentum of the music as new tones begin to be introduced. Act 3: Climax Bleeding between complication and climax, we have Whitman’s word. The images are now focused on the individuals – on individual feat and accomplishment. The climax happens right at the end of this point and at the beginning of the reversal. Act 4: Reversal We’re invited to “contribute a verse.” The images move more quickly, as if flipping through the pages of a book that’s mean to give us a scope into humanity, into art, play and creation (ideas and actions iconically associated with the Apple brand). Act 5: Denouement The concept is simple here. Williams leaves us with an invitation and the denouement, peaking with once again majestic view of a natural landscape as presented in the exposition. We walk away with an invitation to play; an invitation to create. As a Forbes article titled “Apple’s Latest Ad is Pure Poetry” summarizes it, “the company wants to show off why people love and use its products. They may be metal, glass, and silicon, but what you’re buying is experience.”
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.