What we do is increasingly being called 'storytelling' but actually I think that definition is completely wrong, and it's really starting to annoy me.

Yes, ads do often have a narrative. This brilliant spot that came out last week, for Devondale Dairy Soft butter, uses many common narrative techniques - it has an 'inciting incident', comedic misunderstanding, and even a twist. Not bad for a film that's only 30 seconds long and also sells a product. But it's still not a story.


 
A story - lest we forget - has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Ads very rarely conform to this definition. The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is Chipotle's Back To The Start. (Interestingly, it was also produced by the Hollywood agents CAA rather than an ad agency...)

But I would argue it may actually be a bad thing for an ad to tell a proper story. Reason being that a proper story has a definitive ending. E.g. at the end of Titanic, Jack dies. (Apologies if you're a teenage girl who unaccountably hasn't seen it yet). This is why sequels are nearly always worse than the original - the original story has finished. But brands don't want their story to end. They want it to go on and on.

Another important difference is that a story is about a character (or occasionally a group or community) that undergoes significant change. E.g. at the beginning of The Lion King, Simba is a naive young cub. He then goes through a period of adolescent irresponsibility ("Hakuna matata") before finishing up as the wise and mature leader of his tribe.

So although a brand 'has a character' e.g. it might be fun-loving or stylish, we don't want that character to change, we actually want it to stand for something fixed, so that people know exactly the role it can play in their lives. 

Brands often have an 'origin story' (example - Innocent smoothies "we made smoothies at a festival and put up a sign saying 'should we quit our jobs to make smoothies instead?' and had two big bins marked 'yes' and 'no' for people to vote with their empty bottles"). But this is normally better told through PR rather than advertising. Innocent should stand for naturalness, not entrepreneurialism.

Please note I'm not arguing against interactivity, or what is today being called 'letting consumers be part of the story.' Interactivity is great, but what consumers should be interacting with is not 'a story' but 'a quality of the brand' or 'the brand's point of view'. 

For example, IKEA's fantastic Facebook Showroom app, which allowed people to tag an IKEA item online with their name if they befriended the store's manager, was not about letting consumers be part of a story but rather enabling them to experience a quality of IKEA ('quirky good value').

Yes, the use of the word 'storytelling' is probably just a language issue, and advertising has long been the victim of a succession of stupid buzzwords, but I do worry that incorrect language can lead to a proliferation of wrong behaviour. In our case, a bunch of charlatans jumping out of the woodwork claiming that we all ought to be 'storytellers'.

Or am I getting upset about nothing?

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