Communication professionals can learn a ton about storytelling from our advertising brothers.
When you’re shelling out $4 million and change to create a single ad, it has a way of tuning one’s senses, a dynamic that typically doesn’t exist when PR crafts a pitch or writes a news release.
With this in mind, I wanted to dust off the legendary “Puppy Love” ad that Budweiser ran during the Super Bowl a few years ago.
The ad racked up over 50 million views within the first week after Super Bowl. I think I’m on safe ground in saying they cracked the code.
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 the 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 askew 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.