‘Snapshot’ Ads: Can New Media Translate TV’s Great Storytelling?

This post originally appeared in Forbes

For years we’ve heard that television advertising will die: It’s too mass, it’s too expensive, new devices skip commercials, people are cutting the cord,and the Internet will take over all forms of advertising. Yet, TV has fought back year after year, and has not only kept their market share but has actually grown. It is truly amazing how this has happened, especially when the metrics coming from television advertising is much softer and more vague than even the most generic form of Internet advertising. So how did television advertising do it?

To answer this, we must travel back to 2500 BC to civilization’s first recorded story about the adventures of Gilgamesh, which related the deeds of a famous Sumerian king. Since that first story, many other stories have followed from the Bible, Quran, and Torah to Homer’s Iliad to the many works of William Shakespeare to today’s Hollywood movies.“Stories are used to explain important but often confusing events and disasters,” says StorytellingDay.Net, as well as in passing down culture and language from generation to generation. Furthermore, only recently in the context of human civilization have we had the printing press, the disk drive, and now “the cloud” to help us jog our memories. By utilizing our innate ability to retain time and space, stories also act as a mechanism to help us remember.

The emotional appeal of storytelling trumps rational facts in nearly every situation. In financial products, marketing funds typically began with its rational facts: its returns, statistics, and numbers. The tide seems to be changing, starting with funds like Top Turn Capital that opts for a memorable story rather than any mention of historical return. Imagine the late Steve Jobs telling us about the rational aspects of the new iPad: the speed of its CPU, the capacity of its RAM, or the size of its flash memory. Not exciting. Instead, he shows two deaf people that could now make a phone call. And for this reason, you bought one (or two).

It’s no coincidence that the most “unforgettable” campaigns originated on television. Remember Apple’s 1984, Wendy’s Where’s the Beef?, The Pepsi Challenge, Life Cereal’s Mikey Likes It, or McDonald’s Nothing but Net with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird? Television advertising has continued to survive since the format allows you to tell a more vivid and powerful story that is easily communicated and remembered.

Most of the other forms of advertising are “snapshot” based. It’s one frame in a series when the typical television commercial has 720 frames (24 frames per second multiplied by 30 seconds). It’s one page in a book that typically has 200 pages. Even though a picture is worth a thousand words, it is very hard to get an entire brand’s culture, history, messaging, and mission in this limited time and space. Thus, “snapshot” advertising has to focus on the “what” you are selling instead of the “why” you are selling it. It is about how fast, how big, how sleek, how light, how affordable the product is: the rational aspects. But as we saw before, the power lays in the story, or the “why.” To reach this power, “snapshot” advertising needs to reference the original television commercial, if possible, to trigger the emotional response as Jaguar is doing with its Super Bowl commercial. To illustrate the difficulty of storytelling using “snapshot” advertising, look at the Venmo New York City subway print campaign featuring “Lucas.” This story gives the “why” behind Lucas, which most consumers will not read. Since the campaign does not tie into an existing television spot, most will not understand the images, leading to apathy, and another forgotten campaign.

As we get inundated with more advertising, it will be stories that help us remember the brands we like and cherish. Summarizing “snapshot” advertising:

  • A pay per click ad has never made me cry.
  • A single tweet from a brand has never made me smile.
  • A billboard has nevergotten me choked up.
  • A Google AdSense Ad drives me to an apathetic or a stoical state.

Television advertising will still be the anchor for most campaigns while garnering support from the other forms of snapshot advertising. Arthur Bavelas of Family Office Insights concludes, “Most decisions are typically made emotionally before they are made rationally.”

If you cannot afford a television commercial, not all is lost. After all, a television commercial is simply the aggregation of a number of snapshot advertisements placed in a particular order. As marketers, all of the tools are there, available and inexpensive. It’s now a matter of how creative we can be.

Timing is still everything. Many are starting to be aware of the new retargeted ads, which show you display ads of products that are left in your cart that you haven’t purchased yet. As Nebo Agency alludes, instead of showing you the “what” that is still left in your cart, a retargeted ad is a powerful opportunity to tell your brand’s story again and appeal to the “why” you didn’t complete the purchase.

Personalization of stories is becoming so powerful that they have changed behavior. Dr. Anshul Mathur tells of how chronically afflicted patients in a University of California Irvine study respond best when their data is crafted into a coherent story. The study found that participant’s attitudes toward physical activity improved when it was tied to a virtual animated fish’s growth and well-being, and even when the interest in the virtual fish faded, participants had established patterns of healthy behavior in their lives. Think of the Tamagotchi or Zynga’s Farmville, where inorganic materials or digital bytes, respectively, can control you under the context of a story. In fact, UK based Wakster’s business is centered on the creation of characters for story. Placing yourself, as protagonist is the basis behind many of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” video platforms as well as offline formats, like the interactive Times Square Forever 21 billboard that let’s you become “Times Square famous” for a few seconds.

Text: The pen is still mightier than the sword. The written word is the “minimum viable product” for storytelling and social media is the inexpensive distribution channel to your audience. Twitter let’s you jump into an existing conversation, forgoing the context that is so difficult to create. Oreo was injected into last year’s Super Bowl blackout and Arby’s was during this year’s Grammy’s. But even more powerful than these single contextual tweets is the story that can be created: Take a look at thiscollection of words that I stumbled across the other day. (Warning: You probably will cry). Native advertising, where accomplished storytellers integrate a brand into their story, is starting to gain momentum with the New York Times recently announcing their intent to join in.

Human beings are uniquely wired to understand, remember and repeat stories,” said Susan Bean of Marina Maher Communications. “Marketers focus on storytelling for the same reason: if told well, they communicate key benefits and elicit an emotional response, which becomes associated with the brand.” The ad formats that will survive are the ones that allow us to tell the story. If story were to die, so would our humanity. Without the “why,” our (online) life would consist of rational numbers: page views, unique visitors, followers, likes, impressions; a bunch of “what’s.” Without stories, the brands and products that fill our lives would be devoid of any meaning, and that would be pretty sad.