Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less

by James Scott Bell

The mind wanders, especially when forced to look at the same walls all day. Enter YouTube. It’s the great playground for the bored and stultified. It beckons us with its search engine, and cheerily sucks us into rabbit holes of delight. Instead of being force-fed what some news group wants us to see (and believe), or as an alternative to getting hooked on a ten-episode series that may, after all is said and done, end with a thud, we get to choose according to our own particular interests and attention spans.

Which makes watching old commercials on YouTube the perfect pastime. For some odd reason which I am not privy to, my brain brought up an old memory the other day of a commercial I’d seen as a kid. It was for Alka-Seltzer, which back in the 1960s put out a string of hilarious ads that went “viral” (in those days, that meant talking about things at the office water cooler).

The commercial I recalled was a mini-story about a professional pie-eating team (already that’s funny). It had the trope of the wise old veteran taking the rookie under his wing, complete with an iconic last shot—the vet turning around as he leaves, giving the kid a last wave.

I searched for it on YouTube, and there it was. Other commercials came to mind, and I found each one of them. And it struck me that in addition to their entertainment value, they also offer lessons for writers.

Let’s take that pie-eating team. What it teaches us is the power of EMOTIONAL CONNECTION. Even as we smile at the obvious satire, we are pulled in because we have experienced the real thing before—that story, that warmth. Once enthralled, they sell the product (which is, of course, the whole point of advertising!) Here it is, from 1967:

From there I went to another classic Alka-Seltzer ad. This one shows us the power of CONFLICT. In this ad a man argues with his own stomach over eating habits and heartburn. The animation is terrific, and the dialogue hysterical. (NOTE: the voice of the stomach is a young actor named Gene Wilder):

One last Alka-Seltzer ad, which is probably the most famous of all. I remember being on the schoolyard mouthing, “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” all the time. Here we see the storytelling principle of OBSTACLES. They’re shooting a commercial for spicy meatballs that come in a gigantic jar. The doting wife serves her husband a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The husband eats a bit of meatball and utters the phrase above. But things keep going wrong, and they have to retake and retake. Which means, of course, the man has has to keep eating spicy meat. For 59 takes! Then they sell the solution: Alka-Seltzer. The kicker at the end of this ad is perfect. Also kudos to the actress, who is hilarious putting on her loving expression each time. First aired in 1969:

“Spicy Meatball” was the brainchild of the legendary agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), which was also responsible for another popular ad, one that the famous advertising man David Ogilvy called the funniest commercial he ever saw. It was for Volkswagen, which issued a spate of hilarious ads in the 60s and 70s. In this one, we get the concept of the JUST ENDING where everyone gets what they deserve:

An ad whiz at DDB, Robert Gage, came up with another “viral” commercial, one of the longest running of all time. It features two boys unwilling to try the new “healthy” cereal their mom has put in front of them. So they decide to test it on their little brother, Mikey. I’d put this lesson under the power of CHARACTERIZATION. Little Mikey says not a word, but his face is so doggone cute it charmed the socks off the nation:

Happily, John Gilchrist, who played Mikey, did not go the way of so many child actors. He’s had a good life, and currently works at MSG Networks, where he is director of media sales doing guess what? Negotiating with advertisers on TV ads.

By the 1980s, the world had changed. It was the era of the fast-paced, make-money-now go-getter. Federal Express caught that vibe better than anyone, and put out a string of commercials that worked at breakneck speed. Let’s call this a lesson on PACE. Here’s the first and most famous ad in that campaign (featuring the actual Guinness World Record holder as World’s Fastest Talker, John Moschitta Jr.):

The year 1984 gave us two unforgettable commercials. The first may be the most famous ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott and shown only once, during the ’84 Super Bowl, it announced the arrival of the Apple Macintosh. The THEME is unmistakable—a lone hero against the large, impersonal “system.” I remember seeing it, and got my first Mac shortly thereafter. And that’s all I’ve ever used since. In those early years using a Mac made you feel like a rebel, and oh so cool. Just like the commercial promised!

The other notable ad from ’84 gave the nation a catch phrase that lasted for years. It was for Wendy’s, and it was a huge success revenue-wise (as the ad men used to say), boosting annual revenue by 31%. Here we have the staying power of one, perfectly placed line of DIALOGUE (as in, “Go ahead, make my day” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”) The phrase “Where’s the beef?” became so ubiquitous it even made its way into the 1984 presidential race. Democrat Walter Mondale used it in a primary debate to question the substance of his opponent, Gary Hart. Ouch.

Since this is TKZ, I’d be remiss if I did not include a THRILLER. And what is a thriller about? Impending death…something terrible could happen at any time! And certainly that is true of those great unsung heroes, the driving instructors:

No look back at classic commercials would be complete without a nod to one of the true geniuses of the ad game, Stan Freberg. He, more than anyone else, perfected the use of humor in commercials. So let’s call this a lesson on VOICE. Freberg’s was unique—wry, dry, biting—so you could almost always tell a Freberg when it aired. Here’s one of his best, a takeoff on the stodgy old domestic commercial where, for instance, a man comes home after work and sits down for dinner. He takes a bite and his expression says the meal just doesn’t make it. The next day the anxious wife tells her neighbor about it, and the neighbor says something like, “Maybe it’s your cooking oil. Here, try my Crisco.” You get the idea. There were innumerable ads of this type in the 50s and 60s. Freberg turned that whole trope on its head with this Great American Soup commercial starring Ann Miller:

So what commercial made an impression on you when you were a kid, and why do you suppose it did? What storytelling lesson or technique can you find in it?

And a Happy Easter to all, no matter where you’re holed up!

72 thoughts on “Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less

  1. The role of ditties probably merits a column of its own. It’s ditties rather than commercials that I remember, though I do remember “Were’s the beef?”, perhaps because the line became so famous.

    “Get Wildroot Creme Oil Charlie,
    Start using it today.
    You see, it’s non-alcoholic, Charlie,
    It’s made with soothing lanolin.
    So get Wildroot Creme Oil, Charlie.
    Start using it today.
    You’ll find that you will have a tough time, Charlie,
    Keeping all the girls away.

    Maybe that last line tell something about where my life at that time.

    There’s Mr. Clean, the big, tough guy in the white tights:

    Mister Clean gets rid of dirt and grease and grime in just a minute.
    Mister Clean will clean your whole house and everything that’s in it….

    Not sure why I remember that one. Maybe just the catchiness of the rhyme.

    Though I “never” smoked, there’s:

    “Winston tastes good, like a –knock, knock–cigarette should.”

    And, sung to “The March from the River Kwai”:
    “My beer is Rheingold Extra Dry,
    Rheingold, the beer more millions buy….”

    Any lessons there for us writers of prose rather than songs?

  2. The Alka Seltzer commerical I remember most was the “plop-plop fizz-fizz oh what a.relief it is” song.

    It was also used in the movie Foul Play during a tense moment. Everyone in the theatre laughed.

          • Ha. Love that. When the mood strikes her, my oldest daughter calls her younger sister and sings, “Oh, I wish I was an Oscar Meyer Weiner, that is what I really want to be, etc.” She knows that song will loop through her sister’s head all day. Ha. Unfortunately, it bleeds over to mine as well. Having seen this it will now loop through my brain all the live long day. I feel it my duty to share this with my oldest daughter today. 🙂
            Thanks for the all the free stuff during this trying time for us all and bringing some joy and laughter into this dark period we must all endure together.
            From a wannabe writer and pianist. Have a great day! God loves you!

    • I agree, Jeffrey, but I was trying to think of ones from when I was a kid. That well pre-dates the memorable Budweiser Clydesdale commercials.

    • I was in a bar in Vail, Colorado, with Jeffery Deaver when the 9/11 Budweiser memorial aired. Never in my life have I ever heard raucous turn to silence so quickly. I get a little teary just thinking back on it.

  3. Thanks for the memories. I remember all of those, but never considered the writing lesson parts. Then again, back then, I wasn’t thinking about writing. And now, since we record almost all our TV, we fast-forward through the commercials.
    I still remember the ones with Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney touting Nestles.

  4. Like the Mikey commercial, I’m sure there are many great commercials I saw as a kid that I loved, just don’t recall.

    But as far as I’m concerned, whoever is responsible for the Budweiser commercials with the horses and the puppy blew everybody else out of the water for all time.

    This one, where puppy is sold off but the horse mafia intercedes to keep him home:

    And then this one, when curious puppy gets himself in trouble and his life is endangered:

    Both of these commercials are entire stories told flash fiction style. You have characters you can root for, a “bad guy” in each, the watcher/reader’s emotions are absolutely engaged, and you are forever changed after having seen it.

    In the “Lost Puppy” commercial (link #2), the look on that rancher’s face when he sees the dog come prancing up the lane followed by the horses is absolutely priceless. I’ve watched these commercials a million times and never get tired of them.

    And as a bonus, while this commercial doesn’t feature the adorable lab puppy, here is another excellent Bud commercial on a colt with a can-do attitude who gets a little help from his friends (it makes me cry every time):

    If I write a novel as powerful as these commercials, I can say my work here is done.

  5. One of the regular programs at my favorite local theater, the Hollywood, here in Portland, is ReRun Theater, which runs old episodes of TV shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s like Miami Vice, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, etc, playing commercials from the episode’s era during the breaks. Definitely a walk down memory lane.

    The commercial which had the most profound impact on me growing up was probably in actuality a PSA, broadcast in 1969 or 1970. My Google and YouTube searching abilities failed to find it, so here it is from memory:

    Two lines of black sedans approach a hilltop as the sun dips towards the horizon. Two world leaders emerge from their respective presidential/ministerial sedans and doff their jackets, and roll up their white dress shirt sleeves as twilight descends. The two leader square off and begin to box as a male announcer says wouldn’t it better if our conflicts were resolved this way than by war?

    The story telling lesson here is the power of theme as expressed by action.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post. Happy Easter!

  6. I always lived this commercial:
    Mean Joe Greene (defensive tackle) of the Pittsburgh Steelers during their decade-long reign as the best team in the NFL is slowly limping his way toward the locker room. HIs jersey is off, hung over his shoulder. He wears a look of angry, tired frustration on his face.
    A young boy is behind him, watching Greene’s struggle.
    Boy: “Mr. Greene? Mr. Greene?”
    MJG: Turns to the boy, irritated. “Yeah?”
    Boy: “You need any help?”
    MJG: “Uh-uh”. He turns to limp on down the hall.
    Boy: “I just want you to know, I think… I think you’re the best ever.”
    MJG: “Yeah, sure”. He is obviously not sharing the boy’s opinion.
    Boy: “Want my Coke?” Holds it up toward MJG, label clear to the viewing public. “It’s OK. You can have it.”
    MJG: “No, no”. He doesn’t want to take the boy’s Coke away from him.
    Boy: “Really. You can have it.”
    MJG: “Okay”. He reaches for and takes the bottle of Coke from the boy’s hand.
    Music begins.
    MJG is smiling at the boy now and nods. “Thanks,” he says. He drinks the Coke while the music continues.
    Boy: Sighs and waves. “See you around.” He turns and begins trudging his way out of the hallway. He’s obviously dissapointed that their meeting ended so quickly.
    MJG: (the music is still playing) “Hey, Kid, catch!” He tosses his soiled game jersey to the boy.
    Boy: “Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!”
    The commercial ends with a big grin spread across Mean Joe’s face as he turns to go on to the Steelers’ locker room.
    I’m not sure what story lesson is to be found here. Mean Joe’s switch from rough and disinterested to friendly and engaging is probably a big clue. Also the reward the boy receives is totally unexpected. I’m sure there’s a lesson there.

    • Oh, yeah, that was a famous one. Maybe the theme: sacrifice. The boy gives up his Coke, and thinks that’s all it will ever come to. Then Mean Joe gives him his jersey! His sacrifice is rewarded…just like Rick in Casablanca (didn’t see that connection coming, did you?)

      • As a 30-year veteran of the advertising business, I can say that the creative people I’ve know had deep respect for the Mean Joe Green spot. It tugs at so many emotional levers, it’s difficult to identify which one is the most effective. But one thing is for sure, nobody forgets that kid’s innocent face or Mean Joe slugging down that Coke. The Balm of Gilead.

    • Hoo boy the tobacco ads. Thanks for all the lung cancer, guys! I remember a print ad from the 50s that said something like, “Doctors who smoke prefer Camels.”

      Tobacco ads were EVERYWHERE. Even on The Flintstones!

  7. Okay, I admit my memory isn’t what it used to be, but I swear I’ve never seen some of these commercials — and yes, I am definitely old enough to have been around when they aired. I was raised in Kansas City. Do you suppose some commercials were/are shown in one part of the country but not in others?

    At the moment I don’t have access to current television, therefore no viewing of ads. I’ll be sure to look at commercials with a more writerly eye when I do.

  8. JSB-
    Today’s post was entertaining and fun as well as useful.
    Here is a link to a relatively recent (1995) offering I think it demonstrates the power of character, dialogue and the unexpected.

    Thanks for the thought and effort you put into these posts. Always educational and fun.
    Tom Combs

  9. Well, there’s always the 1970s Ranier Beer commercial where Mickey Rooney is dressed as a Mountie and singing the duet “Indian Love Call” and instead of pouring the beer into the proffered glass, pours it down her cleavage. I only saw it once, then they started airing the version where the beer is poured into the glass Spoilsports. You can see it on YouTube as “Ranier Beer – Mountie Version 2.”

  10. Wonderful work in finding and presenting these, JSB.

    I also watched the Apple 1984 commercial when it aired. And am writing this on an iMac right now. Also owned a VW Beetle around the time that DDB ad ran.

    I guess those commercials worked on me.

    • It was so powerful…and right at the time when I had to decide what computer I would be wedded to. I didn’t want to be a dull, gray nobody forced to listen to Big Brother!

      • Yep. And for a “creative” like me (graphic design, photography, desktop publishing, etc.) there was no choice BUT Mac. e.g., Photoshop wasn’t available for Windows until late 1992. And Windows was SO ugly. Ugh.

  11. You beat me to Stan Freberg. His first Little Caesar ads built that brand. The wise old Native American giving advice to his grandson was a reall winner. All this wonderful advice about life, then he adds that you can get two pizzas for the price of one. The boy rides off whooping, and the grandfather says sadly, “He’ll only remember about the pizza.” I have an album of Freberg’s comedy. He was awesome.

  12. Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.

    I remember the jingles more than the actual commercials. I vividly remember the I’d like to teach the world to sing Coke commercial

    What I thought was interesting about these commercials was that the older ones tried to tell a little story. The less old ones are harder sell. I can’t think of the last commercial I saw that wasn’t hard sell and tried to tell a story in 15-30 seconds. No one would even pitch a commercial like those anymore.

  13. So, this commercial must have appealed to the sense of adventure and reward. Dina Shore touting the auto business. “See the USA in your Chevrolet…”

  14. The Crocker Bank commercial told a story using a ditty penned by Paul Williams. Richard Carpenter saw/heard the commercial and asked Paul to expand the ditty into a full fledged song. Karen sang it and it was one of the Carpenter’s first hits.

  15. Remember the Lipton Soup commercials? Famous line: “is it soup yet?” I remember the one from my childhood where the little girl speaks in a very southern accent, “And I helped.” It sounded like hepped though.

    • The “I hepped” was for Shake n Bake. The little girl was happy she’d been part of the great chicken dinner by shaking the bag with the spices and chicken parts.

  16. I saw a hilarious ad for a soft drink here In India. The father’s will is being read by the attorney and the family is sitting around listening. Off to one side, the cleaning lady is on her hands and knees washing the floor. She’s not paying much attention until the lawyer reads that the old man has left his estate to her. She looks up as one of the sons almost falls over. He’s given a drink of the product and then congratulates her. His brother punches him in the shoulder. 😀 — Suzanne

  17. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Jim. That driver’s instructor commercial cracked me up! Hope you and yours had a nice Easter.

    • I remember the song! But not those early appearances. I love commercials were you see future stars. There was a famous one with Tom Selleck for some kind of cologne. But you looked at the guy and thought, he’s got to be a star someday.

  18. The one ad I always remembered is “Bet you can’t eat just one” Every time we open a bag of Lays Potato Chips, there it is.

    • Yes! Several times my roommates and I, in college, drove up to a stop light, rolled down the window, and asked the car next to us if they had any Grey Poupon. Usually they laughed. A few uses one digit of the hand to respond.

  19. Seeing the alka seltzer ads reminded me of something my grandmother did to one of my cousins at her wedding. Grandma had a wonderful sense of humor, and I was often her unwitting accomplice.

    My grandmother sent me up to the front of the reception hall with two gifts for the bride and the groom. She instructed me to give the bride hers first, wait for her to open it, and then give the groom his gift.

    The bride received a cook book.

    I handed the groom his small, round package, already guessing what my grandmother wrapped.

    Yes, it was a bottle of Alka Seltzer.

    I don’t remember the bride or the groom laughing, but everyone else did. 😀

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