We talk a lot about ideas in this business, but no one ever defines them. I think it’s time to set the record straight. I’m going to say what I think advertising ideas are. Don’t worry, the answer won’t be dull. It will include sex, tyranny, Old Sparky and talking rabbits.
To see what I have in mind, imagine you have a friend who tells you he has just met the most beautiful girl in the world. Naturally you don’t believe him. Now imagine you hear the words, ‘Once upon a time there was a queen who was the most beautiful girl in the world’. This time you believe it.
What is the difference? When you hear the magic words Once Upon a Time your mind boots into a different operating system. Our usual rational, logical evidence-based mode of thinking — think of it as Microsoft Windows — gets switched off. Storytelling is OSX. When we listen to a story we enter an altered state. A trance. You can see it on the faces of children as they listen to a story or watch a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
If you want to persuade people (and after all we are in the persuasion business) the least effective way to do it is present them with a rational argument. A list of impressive facts doesn’t persuade at all. You need to change the way they feel.
Even the most hard-boiled über-rationalist CEO believes in talking rabbits when in story mode.
Advertising ideas are really miniature stories. The phrase, ‘Five times more reliable in sub-zero temperatures than other cars’ is not a story. Whereas the words, ‘Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snow plough drives to work?’ is a story with a sales message embedded in it.
So in this reading, ideas are Trojan horses we use to smuggle our message inside the reader’s defences.
Tyrants have long known about the secret of persuasion. They don’t tell the crowd about the projected GDP, they conjure up a vision of the sunlit uplands towards which they will travel.
Lovers know it too. When a man tries to win the heart of the girl he loves, he doesn’t give her a PowerPoint presentation on the key benefits of his soul. He takes her on a surprise weekend to Paris. He doesn’t just tell her a story; he makes her star in one. It’s a commercial for himself.
In the early days, advertisers didn’t bother with ideas. They just rammed the message home through the brutal repetition of product claims. The world soon got tired of that, especially as selling messages proliferated. People built a defensive wall around their minds. That’s when agencies turned to creativity. Charm, wit, humour, entertainment, storytelling.
Not all advertisers went this route, but in the past few years it has gone from optional to mandatory. The big difference, as everyone knows, is the unstoppable rise of social media. To succeed in this new landscape you have to be likeable and shareable. You have to touch people’s hearts. People don’t share facts, they share cats. Advertisers ignore this new reality at their peril.
When a man tries to win the heart of the girl he loves. He doesn’t just tell her a story; he makes her star in one. It’s a commercial for himself.
The ultimate proof of this is in the courtroom. If you are ever on trial for your life, you had better hire a good storyteller. You might think guilt or innocence is decided by the facts. But generally the defence and prosecution both have access to the same set of facts. They just weave different stories around them.
If you tell the best story, you will live happily ever after.