Why Marketers Won't Get Storytelling.
Most still think "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was a pretty romantic movie.
“Writing a song is like holding a bird and not killing it. Sometimes you end up with a mouthful of feathers.” Tom Waits
It’s funny how marketing seminars are always coming up with new insights, like how you can turn your customers into best buddies through storytelling. It’s really content marketing, but if you come to their seminar, they’ll show you how make it sound like a heart-drenched story, and pretty soon, best buddies will fly through your doors like, well, flies.
The reason this gives me such a metaphysical thrill is because it’s nonsense. You might as well throw an old Woodstock tie-dyed teeshirt over their suits. Marketers aren’t peaceful, love-drenched, peace-sign flashing people. Most still think They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a pretty romantic film.
One seminar gives the example of Subaru doing commercials about love. Everyone’s in love, even the dog. They’ll tell you Suburu’s sales are going through the roof because everyone can relate. Meanwhile Ford is doing the same old running shots. They’re making more than Subaru. Why? Because they discount like crazy, and throw in snow tires. If you told their dealerships to throw in some “love,” they’d tell you to fuck off.
Send people into their dealerships, all hepped up on this best buddy shit, and they’ll fleece the crap out of them with extras.
Car dealers are around people every day. They’re the front line. Send people into their dealerships, all hepped up on this best buddy shit, and they’ll fleece the crap out of them with extras. They still think The Wolf of Wall Street is a pretty romantic film.
Remember the episode of WKRP where the undertaker (Ferryman) is listening to his jingle “Hey, you’re young and swingin’, no time to think about tomorrow, but there ain’t no use to deny it, one day soon you’re gonna buy it”? Of course we laugh. It’s hysterical. There’s Ferryman bopping up and down, his face as lifeless as Dick Clark’s tenth facelift.
In its own way, the episode is offering marketers a sage piece of advice. Nothing — and I mean nothing — has doomed-to-failure written across it like people trying to sell something they’re not.
It’s like saying you went to a funeral and everyone was crying, so you cried, too. That doesn’t make you friends. Neither does storytelling.
I know many marketers will argue this. Aren’t stories more real than single-message advertising? They are if you
them. But we know from experience that most are fabricated emotions. We don’t buy them because it’s like Ferryman. He’s trying too hard to be hip.
Nobody buys an undertaker being hip.
He still thinks Night of the Living Dead is a pretty romantic film.
You can’t fake it, in other words. It’s like saying you went to a funeral and everyone was crying, so you cried, too. That doesn’t make you friends. Neither does storytelling. At best, you can agree on something. It’s not a bonding moment, but it could be a shared one. There’s a difference.
Years ago (1977) a copywriter was assigned to do a commercial about Pioneer’s “sound excellence.” Instead of focusing on the equipment, he told the story of jazz saxophonist, Sonny Rollins. After twelve years in the music business, Rollins decided he wasn’t good enough. So he dropped out, spending his nights playing sax on the Brooklyn Bridge. When he thought he was ready, he returned, drawing massive acclaim.
It’s a brilliant form of storytelling. Without mentioning Pioneer’s sound excellence, we share our appreciation of a great jazz artist. We figure Pioneer understands Rollins’ dedication, so their equipment must be good.
P&G would walk out the door. Ford would throw a hissy fit right there in the boardroom.
How many clients — or marketers — would spent this amount of time on a story without selling the product? P&G would walk out the door. Ford would throw a hissy fit right there in the boardroom.
Marketers who say “We’ll take it a step at a time,” forget they’ve had years to take these steps. The majority have failed. We’ve seen endless examples of supposedly “emotional” spots.
Back in 2015, Nationwide did a commercial for the Super Bowl, promoting conversations around preventable childhood injuries. It featured a boy talking about all the things he wouldn’t be able to do in life because — you guessed it — he died in an accident.
Twist ending, sure, but tasteless. The CMO of Nationwide resigned. The advertising community took note. If you’re looking for shock value, remember, you’ll turn as many people off as you’ll draw tears.
It’s dicey at the best of times. While the lure of “bonding” sounds right, the idea of opening oneself up to criticism makes it too big of a gamble. Marketers aren’t gamblers. That’s the first thing you notice in any boardroom. They also, for some reason, think they’re grammarians.
I do it because being conversational means more to me than grammar. I failed grammar. Strangely, I aced short story writing.
How is grammar related to all I’ve been talking about? Throughout this piece, I’ve used contractions in almost every sentence. I’ve also been guilty in the past of starting sentences with “Because.” I do it because being conversational means more to me than grammar. I failed grammar. Strangely, I aced short story writing.
Throughout the years, I’ve had clients correct my grammar, telling me no contractions — and certainly no compound prepositions — will cross their desks. Who the fuck starts a sentence with “Because?” Well, John Lennon did in a very famous song. Shakespeare made up words, and didn’t give a fuck about grammar, either. Some of our grammar is, in fact, derived from Shakespeare not giving a fuck about grammar.
If you think resigning your CMO position for being tasteless in a commercial is crazy, imagine being compared to a seven-year-old. Writing is really rough.
Now, what happened when I presented such contractions (and “because”) to the client? They told me to rewrite. One client said I wrote worse than his seven-year-old. If you think resigning your CMO position for being tasteless in a commercial is crazy, imagine being compared to a seven-year-old. Writing is rough. I still think Dead Poet’s Society is a pretty romantic film.
It tells you something about marketers and storytelling, though. They’re up against it. Being believable is an art, not a science, something Bill Bernbach said over and over again. I guess he’d know since his agency did more believable advertising than any other. But there’s no use bringing that up, especially when all you want is to bond.
So here’s something — not from a copywriter — but from Tom Waits, who could’ve been a copywriter. These are the lyrics to one of his earlier songs. If the day ever comes when you can capture this in your storytelling, then, sure, you’ll have best buddies all over the place (probably for life).
“Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitley, out to my old ’55, as I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy, God knows I was feeling alive, now the sun’s coming up, I’m riding with lady luck, freeways, cars and stuff, lights beginning to fade, and I lead the parade, just a-wishin’ I’d stayed a little longer, Lord don’t you know, the feeling’s gettin’ stronger.”
Robert Cormack is a novelist, satirist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is available through Skyhorse Press. You can read Robert’s other articles and stories at robertcormack.net
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