The battle between New England and Los Angeles in the 2019 Super Bowl didn’t exactly turn out to be a humdinger (old-school adjective fits the style of play).
I found the ads to be a letdown as well. Maybe it was an unrealistic expectation, but I was hoping to watch 60 seconds of storytelling that measured up to Budweiser’s “puppy love” ad from the 2014 Super Bowl.
As Sara Fischer at Axios pointed out, the 2019 ads “highlighted how torn society is over the promise of Big Tech. Some spots showed dystopian fears surrounding robots and automation, while others highlighted ways new technologies can improve health care, employment and connectivity.”
Needless to say, this year’s ads didn’t tease out the humanity and hammer the failure note in the legendary Budweiser ad.
The ad has racked up millions of views since its debut.
In short, bad stuff happens in good storytelling.
When the stranger adopts the puppy and starts driving away, we assume the puppy is headed for a dull life in the burbs away from his buddy. This creates the tension which in turn enables the “payoff” with the horse and his posse coming to the rescue.
In drawing out the sequence of events, the classic story arc surfaces (taking liberties with a Jimi Hendrix song).
I recognize that paid media allows advertising to control the narrative. The ad folks can dish out a crisis knowing with 100 percent certainty that a payoff and happy ending await.
The same approach poses a challenge for PR where the mindset is to diffuse or even hide the “bad stuff.” You never hear a CEO asking the communications team, “So what failures do we have to leverage this quarter?” You never hear about a company hiring a PR agency “to get the bad word out.”
Yet, the ability to bring failure or a problem to the narrative is what creates industrial-grade storytelling. Whether you call it tension or drama, there is none unless a negative event occurs, which sets the stage for the company to demonstrate its character in overcoming the “bad stuff.”
PR can and should push for content related to activities that didn’t go according to plan. This way, you can frame the story with a before and after component. The more distance between the two, the greater the drama. Without the “before,” the journalist or reader has no way of understanding the context for the “after.”
Beyond the story arc, here are three more takeaways from the Budweiser video to guide PR-generated content:
1. Provide context
If you only see the stranger driving off with the puppy and don’t know that the puppy has tried three times to see his buddy, the horse, you figure what’s the big deal? After all, it IS a puppy adoption business.
2. Outward focus
Shouting “me, me, me” is the quickest away to turn off the audience. The company needs to be in a supporting role, not the knight in shiny armor riding to the rescue.
3. Humanize the story
If your company makes software for troubleshooting computer networks, it’s going to be a stretch to bring a puppy (or a cat) into the picture. Still, this dimension can be brought out through the people involved.
One of my favorite lines on storytelling comes from Fortune journalist Patricia Sellers, who closes an interview with: “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested.” While Sellers makes clear the type of story she’s after, you can still bring tension to a story without the “F” word. After all, you don’t exactly find “failure” in the Puppy Love video.
But you do need to bring forth an obstacle, a struggle or something going awry so the story arc dips. That allows the company or individual (or horse) to start that onerous climb for a form of redemption.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut espoused:
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
I’m not saying that communicators must be sadistic to succeed in storytelling.
Sharing an imperfection or two will do the trick.