Story is everywhere.
It’s in the movies we see.
It’s in our conversations when someone asks: How was your day?
It’s even in our sales presentations when we tell the “story” of how the house we’re showing came on the market or how a xerox machine saved the careers of the last office staff that used it.
Stories are about transformation: Someone starts out one way and ends up another. And when told well, using that simple dynamic can communicate an idea that hits us on a very primal level.
One of the best places to see this in action is in commercials.
The fabled “story spot,” those 10 to 60 second TV ads, have been around forever. They compress story to its bare bones. One of my recent favorites is a one-minute United Airlines spot done with stop motion art about a father leaving his sleeping son to go off to a business meeting that quickly becomes an adventure fantasy involving fire-breathing dragons. That commercial is magic to me — and primal. But just like the movies we write — with beginnings, middles and ends, good guys and bad guys, and a final resolution — effective commercials must have these same elements.
I asked Merry Carole Powers, brilliant Chicago copywriter and screenwriter, to keep an eye out for some of her favorite story spots and she sent me a link to a fabulous and very silly one — a great example of what I’m talking about. This is a commercial called “The Tooth Fairy,” a simple tale whose punchline is : It’s an ad for a men’s cologne. Take a look here:
(Merry is also the inventor of the “portable board” that we will make available soon on this site. It’s a fantastic little item for Cat!-ites who have their extra large cork boards on their walls at home and might like to go mobile once in a while.)
What are your favorite “story spots”? One thing is certain, now that we’ve opened up the discussion, you’ll be looking at all stories — be they in conversation, at the movies, or in commercials — in a whole new way.
Story is everywhere! Story is our life!
- Steve Lang
My favorite commercial of all time (besides maybe the Geico cavemen commercials). I don’t remember the advertiser though, and no one else I know remembers the commercial…
Two old friends are sitting on a bench, reminiscing about their time together in WW 2.
One man smiles and says to the other, “Remember that time we were on break, and those two Swedish nurses invited us for a weekend in the country?”
The other one smiles, and nods warmly, as we see a brief montage of 2 beautiful women and a sunny field.
Then the first man frowns, and says “We should’ve gone.”
The spot was absolutely pitch-perfect. It’s a down ending that teaches a very important life lesson! ;-)
I think it might have been for a life insurance company, or something like that. I wish I remembered- I should’ve written it down!
- Bryn Dalton
Is it possible there could be “10 genres” of commercials as per Save the Cat?!?
I can propose one :
The M. Night Shyamalan (or perhaps the Hitchcock, apparently reusing something old is popular these days) – Led down a road (usually with really sappy or over dramatic music) expecting something for sure to happen, to suddenly have everything reversed. Like Blake’s Whydunnit? without the why, just an alternate answer to the riddle. The Geico ads are probably the best current example of this (that one posted above of the doggie suicide is another great example) but I’m sure there’s many more like this out there.
Anyone have any other genres?
P.S. – I lent my copy of STC to a friend and now he says I can’t have it back! Guess I’ll have to buy another one! That’s 1 Million copies sold -1 . . .
- Sarah Beach
Learn this important lesson, Bryn. Never loan your copy of Save the Cat! Heh. If the friend means that much to you, buy them a copy! (I did this recently for one of my friends.) Because, you know how good the book is. ;)
Back to topic —
One of my current faves is an A.G. Edwards (financial services) commercial, were a man is chasing his nest egg all over downtown. (Okay, I admit, in the interest of truth in advertising, a big reason I like it is that the I know the actor.) The visuals have fun with the question of the “story”: can you keep up with your nest egg? (Or, do you know where it is? Or, are you taking good care of it?) The resolution of the story is the end voice-over, and text added — A.G. Edwards, financial services. All very tight and to the point, with a dash of fun. More so than the other A.G. Edwards commercial, where you see nest eggs of all sorts of sizes being pampered and carted around. “Chasing the Egg” has conflict/drama that the other one doesn’t.
- Amber France
Copies of Save The Cat! disappear faster than anything I’ve ever seen before. Apparently the book is even a big hit with non-screenwriters
I have learned my lesson as well. Never ever ever loan a copy of Save The Cat! to anyone. The book is never safe, even somewhere you think the culprit couldn’t get away, such as…oh just an example… an airplane in flight between Dallas and Dayton. Just an example, that’s all.
I think we should start buying multiple copies (besides the copies we have to replace) and keeping them in safe deposit boxes. In 6 months time, those copies will be worth more than the Mona Lisa. Why else would so many people be willing to steal them?
THANK YOU VERY MUCH JERK ON AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT ON MARCH 25 FROM DALLAS TO DAYTON! I WANT MY BOOK BACK YOU NON-SCREENWRITING BOOK THIEF!!!!!!!!
My favorite commerical these days is a Verizon spot. It shows a kinda wimpy guy meeting another guy, who’s kind a thug type, out in the middle of a large muddy field, and it’s raining. The thug leans towards the wimp in a menacing fashion.
THUG: ” Thought I told you to come alone.” WIMPY: ” I did.”
THUG: “Who’re they?”
Wimpy looks over his shoulder where a bunch of folks are waving from under umbrellas.
WIMPY: “That’s my network. In case I need to make a call or something…”
“You get service out here?”
Thug walks towards the crowd.
THUG “Hey, you work down by the docks? I do lots of business down there too.”
Great commercial! And, I hate cell commercials.
- Bryn Dalton
You may have just come up with another genre for commercials:
The Visual Gimmick – Take a metaphor (chasing the nest egg) and realize it visually. Anyone see that one where the sick guy comes into work looking like an angry troll, but when he takes the medicine advertised he morphs back into a normal person. What about that campbell’s soup ad where the snowman comes in and starts to eat the soup, melting the snow to reveal it’s a member of their key demographic? Again, relying on a modern visual trick ( those wonderful Geico caveman ads could find a place in here too) to remind you of advice your grandmother gave you when you were little.
Come on, someone think of another one . . .
- Amber France
Another favorite commercial, not sure of the greatness of story, but it is so incredibly funny!
It’s a cell phone ad, Sprint I think, where the two guys are comparing their phones, and the one guy says “mine has theft control” (ok not remembering exact dialogue) and the other guy says “Really, let me see” and the other guy smacks him in the head with it. The second blow to the head is even funnier.
I was thrilled to see the new GoDaddy.com commercial during the Super Bowl, that was a great way to make fun of and get around all the press about the commercial the year before. They were defiant, and I got a kick out of that, that’s something I would have done. Anything to get that girl back in a commercial with 85% of the people watching just WAITING for that strap of her shirt to snap off. Just for spite.
Speaking of Super Bowl commercials, the Budweiser ad this year with the little Clydesdale trying to pull the wagon and the two big ones pushing it to make him think he was pulling it. Now that was cute! Awww, what parents will do for their children!
What about really bad commercials? Any you hate? and why don’t they work?
What happened to Coca-Cola commercials, they used to be so good! I realized they were getting really bad when the ill-fated “eating disorder” ad appeared. That’s what I called it anyway. The super model looking woman is in the kitchen of a restuarant stuffing her face with food with a bottle of Diet Coke next to her, then it shows her going back to the table to her (I assume) date with her trusty bottle of Diet Coke where they start to order and she says “Just a salad, I’m watching my figure” or something along those lines. I actually cried watching that, it was so disgusting and so depressing that that idea had to get an OK from how many people? They actually thought that was a good idea??? Luckily I only saw the ad twice (same night) and it never appeared again. Maybe others did what I did and e-mailed Coca-Cola to ask what the heck they were smokin when they let that get made. Did they really think that made Diet Coke attractive?
- Sarah Beach
There’ve been a number of commercials that have been amusing or entertaining in some way — but not well connected to whatever product they’re selling. Those make me nuts, almost as much as the type you mention Amber, which run counter to the message the seller really wants to convey.
Now that I think about it, commericals where we see people – especially celebrities – supposedly doing stuff that we know they did NOT do for the commercial, those also bug. Kirstie Alley in the Jenny Craig commercial where the dance number breaks out: come on, you KNOW she had a stunt double for that high flip-throw. Plus it was shot so dark you couldn’t see her silhouette. Made me feel “Oh, she actually put on some weight, but they needed a new commercial so they had to disguise it.” Or James Earl Jones doing stunt waterskiing for Verizon. The unbelievablility factor distracts me.
- Bryn Dalton
Anybody remember those Folger’s coffee commercials about the romantic interludes over a steaming cup? There was a series of them (I think some poor bugger even wrote a bunch of books about it) that did more to sell a lifestyle than coffee, admittedly, but showed that story and really good commercials are inseparable. So does that mean that we really do see commercials the same way we see the TV programs in between? Is it possible it could become a popular trend in advertising? Maybe give people’s attention spans a little more credit?
What if commercials were like a series, telling a little bit of the story each time? Might we not start to look forward to the next ad? Would we talk about about it around the water cooler the next day? Word of mouth is the best advertising of all, but people wouldn’t talk about it unless something happened that got their attention.
Speaking of which, I’m going to make a reality TV series based on the Geico Cavemen. Anyone who’s interested, give me a call.
- Sarah Beach
That was Taster’s Choice, not Folgers. And the guy who played the mentor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Yes, I watch way too much TV.)
But a serial story is indeed a good hook. There’s even a new version of a serial story in commercials right now. I was going to mention it the other day. It’s the “Alien Milk Hunters” commercials for the “Got Milk” campaign. And they’re funny.
A “reality” show based on the Geico Cavemen? What will it be? Sophisticated cavemen showing how barbarian the modern species is? Hehehe. (See, you’ve got me intrigued.)
- Amber France
Geico cavemen? I would actually watch that reality show! I find myself silently begging for more of the commercials.
Speaking of, that’s one example of serial commercials!
More commercial pet peeves, the medication commercials “ask your doctor if …. is right for you”. But they don’t tell you what the heck it is for? They just show smilin’ people and tell you to hurry and ask your doctor if you should be on that medicine. Seems like such a waste to not say WHAT you are supposed to be asking for. But I suppose if you made enough money each year that you can run the government there is really no need to say what it’s for, just make sure people ask their doctors for it.
I despise the Diet Coke bubbles. I guess I’m just upset at Coca-Cola for their lack of creativity. I collect Coca-Cola memorabilia, and it’s just plain insulting how they have made such sucky commercials for years. They built that product up by using creativity!
I have to say Geico has for sure dominated the commercials for the last few years, between the cavemen and the adorable Gecko, they created quite a sensation. They made use of a cute little “hero” mascot, like Taco Bell did with the Chihuahua. The method is proven to succeed.
- Amber France
Just thought of another…
The Country Crock butter commercials. For years we have just seen their hands and heard the voices, but they have succeeded in creating a story and carrying it on for many years. We saw them as a cute couple, then engaged, then married, then expecting a baby, and now after the baby. They have been able to use the story to promote newer kinds of Country Crock. You almost feel like you know them, you have grown to know them over the years and yet all we ever see is their hands.
Simple but effective.
What is the opening piano music used in the Ag edwards nestegg commercials?
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I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to Geicko commercials. Extremely addicted.
But my all time favorite “story spot” has to be the Bridgestone commercial where the dog finds his doggy spouse…um, cheating…on him and he tries to commit suicide. I think this is the link to it… http://www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2480176
I think this was removed from TV pretty much as soon as it aired (I believe it was a Super Bowl commercial) after quite a few complaints. According to some parents some children were a bit traumatized by the whole thing. Have your speakers on, you have to enjoy the emotional music! Poor doggy! This has got to be the only commercial that made me want to laugh, then cry, then laugh again. It also made me want to go out and buy Bridgestone tires.