Commercial Storytelling

By John Gilstrap

Efficiency is key in writing fiction. In this contexts, efficiency means getting in and out of scenes at just the right time to keep the story moving along. It means using the right amount of dialogue to communicate just the right message.

I think there are lessons to be learned along these lines from television commercials—not all of them, of course, but from some of the good ones. I’m particularly partial to television ads that are less focused on selling a product than on selling an image. Product-oriented oriented ads can certainly be effective—I’m thinking of the new Mac vs PC ads, for example—but as effective as they are, I don’t see a lot of story.

I’m talking about commercials like the famous Mean Joe Green Coca-Cola ad from twenty years ago. A hobbled football player makes his way down the tunnel on his way to the training room when a little boy offers him a coke to make him feel better. In the reaction, there’s a moment when the boy’s feelings are hurt, but then he’s richly rewarded. Great ad.

I also love the old Folger’s Coffee ad where the college kid arrives in the wee hours to a home that is fabulously decorated for Christmas. The house is completely still, completely perfect. He puts on a pot of coffee and the family awakens.

Then there are the ones who choke me up every time. Anheuser Busch is among the best of the best. Remember the ad about soldiers arriving home to the applause they should receive every time?

I was in a bar in Vail, Colorado for the Super Bowl in 2002 when Anheuser Busch’s “Tribute” ad brought complete silence. The entire team of Clydesdales bows to the newly-mangled New York skyline. It still gives me a chill and brings a lump to my throat.

Think about what storytelling really is: It’s about making an emotional connection with your audience and driving it home. I think these examples do exactly that. How about you? Any favorite ads that tell a good story?

Missed Opportunities

Not too long ago I was watching a primetime television show, as I am wont to do. And lo and behold, there was a commercial for the next Stephen King novel. It contained all of the bells and whistles of a movie trailer, and made those book trailers put together by authors on their own dime (mine, for instance) look woefully inadequate in comparison.

Which got me thinking: what an enormous wasted opportunity. Now I’m far from a publishing expert. Despite years working as a freelance writer, book publishing is still relatively new and shiny to me. And perhaps because of that I can see when they’re dropping the ball.

After all, not to begrudge Stephen King these promotional efforts, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say his sales are probably consistently healthy. When Stephen King has a new book coming out, his die-hard fans will know about it months in advance. And it’s not like that’s a small following. In addition to the commercials, there were probably full page ads in major book review sections and magazines, special mailings to bookstores, co-op placement…which is all well and good. But since a major complaint in the industry is that there are fewer and fewer of these blockbuster authors to rely on these days, why not seize the opportunity to create more?

For example, what if part of the commercial was devoted to a relatively unknown author whose work is similar to King’s? Showcase both titles, so that once the fans have torn through King’s latest offering, when they’re still hungry for more, another book leaps into their mind. Perhaps even set up some sort of promotional marketing, a reduced price for the purchase of both titles. You let King’s fans know about his latest release, and hopefully you introduce them to someone new. Why not take advantage of a built-in readership and expand on it?

Sounds pretty basic, right? Especially since when a J.K. Rowling decides to hang up her hat, or Dan Brown takes years to produce his next runaway bestseller, publishers start reeling as their sales plummet. Compare it to a sports team: put all the money in your stars and lose depth. If Peyton Manning gets knocked out of the lineup, you’re in deep trouble. But build a solid stable of players behind those stars, you’ve still got a chance of making the playoffs, or generating solid sales.
(On a side note, I actually have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Dan Brown. Go ahead and laugh, but can you imagine the pressure that poor man is under, having to write a follow-up to Da Vinci Code, knowing that the critics are waiting with knives that grow sharper by the year? I
picture him locked away in a room somewhere a la Howard Hughes, naked and filthy and pacing. But maybe that’s just me).

Anyway, that’s my two cents. Build a team for the future, with a wide, solid base, not one that perches precariously on a few backs. But I’d love to hear what you think…