For more than a hundred years, advertisers have used stories as their primary weapon for persuading people to make decisions about who they are, what they want, and (obviously) what they buy. In Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs‘ book on how to be heard in an overcrowded marketplace, he points to Listerine’s “often a bridesmaid, never a bride” ad in the 1920s as one of the most successful story-led campaigns of the last century.
But for Sad Edna, the ad’s unlucky heroine, the story is one of inadequacy. Edna’s halitosis, and, her lack of awareness of it, means she’s doomed not to marry while other, better sanitised friends bag the man and the life they’ve always dreamed of.
Humans have used story power to remember, entertain and persuade since we used rocks as knives. Stories engage our senses; their fuel is emotion and the journey they take us on is measured in feelings. Psychology Today describes stories as a “Trojan Horse” that can get inside our psyche. Our brains are built for them, from gossiping with friends to assigning human behaviours to inanimate objects, the vast majority of our mental processes and decisions take place within narratives.
Sad Edna shows the darker side of storytelling and advertising – Sachs talks about the success that ad men have had using stories that bore holes in self-confidence, which their products then neatly fix – but using this method to market sustainable products and services won’t work with this approach.
Research has shown that threats – often used in areas such as climate change and safety ads – can instead cause resistance. Making me feel bad about my lifestyle won’t make me change it. Instead I’ll probablylike you less and stop reading your story.
Think about the narrative used in most fundraising pushes for cancer (substitute climate change, water shortage, poverty in Africa) – there’s an awful lot of heart-rending, guilt-inducing rubble to clear on the way to finding it.
But there is hope. Take Cancer Research’s new TV ad campaign, for example. Its opening lines read: “Everyone has an enemy. Something that can hurt them. It doesn’t matter who you are. How big or how powerful. Even cancer has an enemy. Research.” An amorphous pink pastel cloud is shot through with black ink spurts. Scientists move in and out of shadows, fighting a quietly powerful battle against a well-known foe. And inspired by battles we’ve won before, against smallpox and HIV. I very rarely give random, one-off donations in response to these ads – but this one made me reach for my wallet during the credits. What made this one work where many have failed?
It made me feel empowered. Not scared of cancer, uncomfortable or sad for those with the disease, or intimidated by the science behind curing it. Instead, it’s the underdog getting the upper hand. And research isn’t the hero in this story and neither is the scientist – they’re the context and the supporting characters. By giving my money, I’m the hero.
Nike’s Makers campaign is one example of where a strong sense of story helps the viewer believe in a solution the company has come up with. Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog video uses humour to deliver its message.
My advice? Don’t put your story, your brand, or your product in the negative space. Especially if you want to change behaviours such as sustainability. Instead, the Cancer Research example gives us some great clues for successful storytelling for sustainability:
- Make me feel empowered, not guilty. Steer a wide berth around using inadequacy to promote sustainable behaviour.
- Cast me in the story as the hero-in-waiting. Help me live the experience, but show me I’m on the winning team. Ask me to do something to justify my place on it.
- Help me believe in the solution. Unite me with the other solvers. Show me where we’ve won before.
- Use metaphor and analogy to explain complex information to me, and make that metaphor relevant to me and my life (or job).
- Entertain me. Surprise me, amuse me, take me on a journey. Don’t ever bore me.