The sole predictive factor for the success of Super Bowl ads is the degree to which they tell a complete story.
So concluded marketing professors Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen, based on their two-year study published in the “Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice.” While this is a reassuring affirmation of the power of narrative in a marketing setting, it begs the question, “What is an advertising story, and how do I tell one?”
Many unsuccessful ads are likely crafted by marketers who think they are telling a story. Some may have started to, but by failing to tell it completely, they were unable to effectively bridge the gap between interest and action.
In the beginning
Even in their earliest forms, stories were meant to compel action. Poets wove epic tales of heroes rising up to defeat terrible monsters, and of rulers brought low by folly. On a grander scale, poems like Homer’s “Iliad,” or our own origin legends (think George Washington and the cherry tree) establish common values and help unify nations.
Storytelling is no different today. We use stories to explain to each other who we are, to urge people to change, and to articulate the importance of a thought. They have persisted as a favored means of communication over thousands of years because they draw on empathy — making them relatable and engaging — reduce complicated ideas into familiar relationships and create a sense of movement toward a higher state of being.
These qualities increase the likelihood of interest, comprehension and retransmission. Their staying power can be seen in the resonance of fables long into adulthood.
Quesenberry and Coolsen found that the closer an ad conformed to the conventional dramatic arc, the more successful it was. Consisting of a beginning, middle and an end, with transitions in between, the five-part plot “inevitably predicted success, independent of the ad’s content.” Less successful ads were unable to captivate the imagination of their audience because they lacked the sense of movement imparted by a fully developed arc.
A good story expresses the protagonist’s ascent from a sub-optimal present toward a brighter future. The distance between the prospect’s own present and the future they experience vicariously through the protagonist creates a sense of lack that is satisfied by the brand.
The story of the tortoise and the hare, for example, is ubiquitous to the point of being idiomatic. It emphasizes the values of patience, persistence and hard work, while admonishing arrogance, haste and a reliance on talent. But what is accomplished by articulating these ideas in story form?
Empathy allows the audience to become the characters. Perhaps they begin as the hare, imagining with excited pride how they will show off their talents. By the end of the story, they want instead to embody the tortoise.
Rather than listing a set of virtues and vices, whose advantages or disadvantages would need to be argued, the story shows what these behaviors or mindsets lead to.
A story pulls the audience in and then orients them towards a higher state of being. Above all, great stories posit a goal, demonstrate its value and show how to achieve it. How exactly, though, is this accomplished?
A middle that moves
The simplest answer is movement. The success of a story relies on movement from a lower to a higher state of being or thought, from poor to rich or from foolish to wise. To accomplish this, a second type of movement is required: from beginning to end. All too often, stories are left incomplete, missing either the beginning or the end, or worse yet, the middle.
All three of these stages are critical to an effective story, because they permit the audience to draw a trajectory from the lower to the higher state. Without a beginning, they would have a goal, and a means of achieving it, but no contrast between the “before” and the “after” to motivate them.
Likewise, a story without an end deprives the audience of a clear illustration of what could be, equally undermining the call to action.
The middle of a story offers a means of effecting the movement from a lower to a higher state. The contrast between the beginning and end creates a tension that must be resolved. While this conflict is often thought of as a destabilization of the protagonist’s initial state, it is more useful to envision it as the source of change.
By overcoming the conflict, protagonists transcend their circumstances and achieve a higher state. In the fable of the tortoise and the hare, this takes the form of the race, in which the tortoise plods along with an even stride. In an ad, it will most likely be the product itself. Without it, the audience will be left desiring an improved state of being they cannot achieve.
Naturally, not all ads directly pertain to the qualities of a product or the benefits it imparts. Imagine for a moment a rendition of the tortoise’s triumph over the hare sponsored by a domestic beer brand. If either of these characters were going to crack a cold one in the middle of the race, it would obviously be the hare, but that might not convey the right message.
Rather than associate with either of the characters, the ad might propose the beer as the ideal means of celebrating a well-earned victory. In using the fable, the ad would link the beer brand with the values of hard work and persistence, rather than expressing the beer’s value as a beverage.
According to a 2013 Forbes article, of the top Super Bowl ads that year, only three addressed the product at all. While most of the top ads that year might be best characterized as branded entertainment, rather than conventional ads, all of them featured a complete plot arc.
Instead of showing how the product solves a specific problem, these ads typically featured protagonists associated with the product overcoming an unrelated challenge. These “branded content” ads still created a sense of upward movement, but they did so with the aim of articulating a positive value that they relate to the brand.
An ending that compels action
A good ad upsets the audience’s equilibrium by identifying an absence or lack in their experience of life, and then provides a means of returning to equilibrium at an augmented state of being.
In telling a story to the prospect, the advertiser holds a magic mirror up to the consumer and shows not what is, or what should be done, but what could be as a result of using the brand. This permits a comparison between the present and the future, the difference between which should compel the prospect to buy.
Successful ads confirm what human beings have known for thousands of years: The movement captured in a complete story is the best way to engage an audience and communicate an idea that results in action.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.