I’m on a quest to find inspiration.
I struggle to find it in the 9-5ish world, where there’re always plenty of projects to do and many words to be written. I’ve been feeling stagnant for some time now and yearn for betterment. I want to read, but I psych myself out and convince myself that I don’t have time to finish books like Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky that could actually add something to my life and my work.
So I decided to stop beating myself up about it and find a way to learn in smaller doses. Thus begins an experiment. I’ll try to watch one TED talk every day for a week, then relate it to advertising or something in my life. Sound like a plan?
Okay, let’s do this.
After browsing the creativity category, I came across Andrew Stanton’s new talk about storytelling. This is the guy that brought us characters like Woody and Buzz, Marlin and Dory, Wall-E and Eve. He brought us plots about new toys in the room and their dynamics, searching a huge ocean for one tiny fish, even cleaning up a disgusting, polluted planet. But what’s more important are the themes he writes into each story. The battle of self-worth and your role in a society, even one of toys. The helplessness of parenthood and the terrifying experience of letting go of children, letting them make mistakes. The wonder we can find even in the darkest, dirtiest of places. These are truths that are universal regardless of the characters. I’m not a toy, or a cowgirl. Or a spacegirl for that matter. I’m not a parent or a clown fish (a percula to be exact). And I’m pretty sure I’m not a robot, although some days my coworkers might disagree. However, each of these stories—Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E—are relatable, regardless. And we fall in love with the main characters: a self-important toy, a grouchy fish and a simple robot.
Interestingly, what he talks about translates to the ad world in several ways.
First, storytelling is joke telling. Every plot leads to some punch line, and in advertising we’d call this the payoff. The part that makes everything before it worth the audience’s time. And in storytelling, as in joke telling, as in advertising, the punch line should represent or speak to some universal truth (like I mentioned above). This is something that often falls on a copywriter’s shoulders, but is really a strategic move. What’s the payoff of this ad? What’s the benefit of the benefit, we ask ourselves. Sometimes it lies just beyond our grasp until one morning under the scalding hot showerhead, we catch it. It’s one of the hardest parts of writing, in my opinion, especially as a new and young writer.
Next, every story has a promise. Stanton recognizes here that “Once upon a time…” is in fact a promise that the story will eventually pay off. Ads are similar in that they make a promise to the consumer. “Buy this car and your life will be filled with adventure and wonder,” says the 2011 Ford Explorer commercial featuring the track “Go. Do.” by Icelandic singer Jonsi. Even “Eat this cereal and you’ll feel better about yourself,” as Special K likes to promise. Of course, in these two examples, I’m speaking of the benefit of the benefit here. Of course, buying an Explorer really means you’ll have a vehicle that takes you places, but that means you can go and do whatever you’d like, wherever you want. Eating Special K doesn’t have self-confidence as its main ingredient. No, consumers lose weight while eating it by following a special diet program and feel good about their image because of the weight loss. This idea of a promise and a real benefit is hard to understand and implement as a student with a teacher trying to explain it, but it gets easier with practice and experience.
Another key to Andrew’s talk is this idea of making the audience work for its payoff. Sure, you can give them “4,” to use his example, but it’s more interesting to give them “2+2”. I think a big mistake some clients and even advertising folks make is assuming the audience is stupid. I’ll be honest, when I worked on Harley-Davidson, I had the wrong impression of my audience and what it would understand. Eventually, I came to trust that it would be able to make the connections I wanted it to make and understand “big” words that I threw into certain pieces. Think about a mystery novel. Of course you can always just say, “Marie was murdered on a cold Saturday night by her husband, John. Police arrested him, he was found guilty and he was locked away for the rest of his life.” Awesome. So, that was really fun to read. Great authors can take that exact story line and add the clues, subtract the obvious and weave a fantastic mystery that keeps audiences guessing until the end. Stanton believes in audiences, and knows they actually want to earn their entertainment. That’s part of the fun, right?
“Stories are inevitable if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”
Stanton went on to talk about the spine of a character and that this is what drives the actions of everything the character does, for better or for worse. Actors might call this motivation, as I call it in advertising. “What’s my character’s motivation,” I’ve heard actors ask aloud. It’s this that is most important, in my opinion, within the realm of audience analysis. We can learn all we want about the demographics of our target audience. Where they live, eat, work, play, how much money they make, how many cars they have. But psychologically, this tells us very little. Discovering motivation, on the other hand, an insight into the audience’s psyche, that is what tells us a story as advertisers, so we can better communicate the right message to the right people. We need to know the spine of our audience and what causes its members to, say, shop at Wal-Mart versus Target, or avoid the Mall of America, or trade in the sporty coupe for a mini van or crossover. There’s motivation behind every action we make, sometimes clearly recognizable, sometimes not. And it’s this motivation, this spine, that’s the key to producing effective advertising.
So how was that? Not too painless on my end. But I’d highly recommend setting aside 20 minutes of your day to listen to Stanton’s talk, since what he says is quite profound. And while it’s going to take me awhile to get around to reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, TED will keep my mind sharp in the interim.