Why marketers have to rethink their approach to storytelling

For some reason, fewer and fewer ads rise to the occasion. Watch live sports or an awards show with a teenager sometime, then count how many times you hear the word “lame” during every commercial break. When they laugh, it’s for good reason, and sometimes that’s because of an ad, or a TikTok video, or a meme, but it doesn’t happen very often. That isn’t mere teen cynicism you’re hearing, it’s candor.

We’re not just talking about emus in ads here—silly shtick designed to grab your attention and prove how modern and wacky a staid old brand can be—we’re talking about an industry problem. Today’s ads focus all their energy on attention and none of their effort on plot. Without a plot, there is no punchline. Humor doesn’t happen at the beginning, it comes at the end.

Great comedians know this. They tell stories, and somewhere along the way, the story takes an unexpected turn, and in surprise and shock you laugh. It’s involuntary, it’s honest and it’s a feeling you never forget. From that first guffaw a connection gets made, and regardless of how you felt about that comedian before, now you’re an advocate for their brand of comedy.

The turn in the tale is not only surprising, it’s often uncomfortable or even outrageous, because great comedy, like a great story, helps us see the world from a different perspective and, in the end, take ourselves a bit less seriously. The current cultural craze for taking offense at every word that isn’t sanitized or politicized in just the right way has not only neutered comedians, it has made most advertising—in the words of a wise teenager—lame.

As an industry, we need to get off our high horse and bring our brands down to earth again. Brand purpose is important, but let’s face it, we’ve gotten a bit preachy. Like the Fresh Prince, we seem to have lost our sense of humor, and we need to get it back. Otherwise we’ll be as irrelevant as the Oscars and have to start slapping our consumers to get their attention.

This is why branded content and creator collaborations are on the rise, but only a handful of agencies have cracked that code. Consider the words of the immortal Gypsy Rose Lee:

Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile
Let me do a few tricks
Some old and then some new tricks
I’m very versatile.

As an industry, we are no longer versatile. We’ve become formulaic. Marketing isn’t a science, it’s art as commerce. Ads are stories that sell.

This comes full circle (in a non-linear way) to the second act, which is all about intrigue and holding a consumer’s attention. This is the hardest thing to do well. Many movies, books and plays fall apart in the middle, because attention strays, things get predictable or the situation isn’t relatable or relevant to the audience. Relevance is always the goal, and story is always the key. Focus on that and you’ll never be lame again.

So instead of scrolling through a post, sharing a meme or liking a tweet, try watching a movie.  Go to a play. Read a book, if you still have the attention span. You might find it’s more relevant to your job—and your craft—than you ever imagined.