OK, before we do anything else, just watch this Audi Superbowl Commercial:
Now, let’s talk about why that’s such an amazing piece of storytelling…
How Long Is a Moment?
There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to Steven Spielberg that talks about feature-length movies as “60 two-minute scenes” — with each scene capable of capturing and riveting the audience’s attention. It’s a fabulous way to think about filmic storytelling.
And, for advertising, it works just as well on the small scale.
Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that a moment lasts 2.5 to 3 seconds, which is also roughly the same amount of time our brains can hold and process in working memory.
Handshakes last a moment. So do hugs. So does a glance into someone else’s eyes. Go longer than that and it’s both more than a moment and more than a slight change!
A moment, then, is exactly how long a single, vivid mental image is held in the mind’s eye. Draw the imagery out too much longer than that and you’re either building tension or risking the loss of your audience’s attention.
So for me, I don’t think of a 30-second spot as 30 seconds, I think of it as 10 great moments (or 20 moments for a 60 second spot).
That’s 10 mental images, each vivid and interesting enough to capture the imagination, strung together to form a riveting mini-movie. For a TV spot it’s a real mini-movie, and for a Radio or Print Ad, its a movie in the mind. Either way, creating one is a game of sequencing mental images for maximum impact.
All of which leaves only two questions:
- How do you pack as much wallop into each 3 second moment/image as possible
- How do you ensure that the moments all build into a meaningful story that ends with a bang
Packing Wallop Into a 3-Second Moment
Obviously, this is a big topic. Whole books could be (and have been) written about it. But here are the main techniques that come to my mind when I think about making each moment count:
- Entering late and leaving early through ritual,
- Visual Intrigue Through Imbalance (aka trouble),
- Forced participation/closure/enthymematic communication,
- Vivid & Striking Imagery (+ Persuasive Imagery) and Symbolism
- Speaking to Self-Image
- Leveraging High Stakes
And while all of these elements are important (and can be found in the Audi ad) I can’t help but feel that the first one, the use of ritual, or what Terry Rossio describes as situation-based writing, is the key to most of the others. It’s also the one that struck me the hardest when I watched Audi’s 2013 Superbowl Ad.
Watch the ad again and see if you can’t pick out every single ritualistic moment that whaps you in the face every three seconds:
- Looking in the mirror before a big event
- Mom seeing you off before High School Prom
- Younger sibling/sister as truth teller
- Dad handing you the keys to the car
- The visceral thrill of firing up a high-performance V-8
- Pulling up to and glancing over at the other car at a light
- Looking on with envy at the antics of the (limo-riding) in-group
- “Burning” the other car at a light
- Parking in the “Big Man’s” reserved spot to thumb your nose at authority
- Strutting into a building while cooly flicking the car lock remote
- Entering a happening dance/club/party
- Stalking your way through a crowded dance floor/club/party.
- Spotting the hottest girl in the room
- Approaching a hot girl dancing in the midst of all her friends
- Taking a chance at kissing the pretty girl of your dreams
- The high school fight (over a girl)
- The post-fight black eye (worn with pride)
- The post-kiss sigh of ecstasy
- The “it was worth it” rebel yell
- The ending message: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”
What you’ll notice, as you watch the film, is that the vast majority of those moments come and go before you ever have a chance to get bored with them.
The ad always enters these scenes late and then leaves early because the creators chose each moment with care: they’re either archetypal American growing-up rituals or just everyday, everyone-has-them rituals. No backstory or explanation required; we encounter them in media res and instantly know what’s going on.
Not only that, but many of these moments are further augmented by multiple camera shots within the space of a single 3-second moment. These storytellers are putting the peddle to the metal visually, ’cause they ain’t taking a chance with losing your attention.
Only two of those moments are allowed to linger and grow pregnant with suspense:
- Spotting/walking up to the girl and kissing the girl being one sequence, and
- The brewing, shocked, then angry reaction of the prom king.
Those sequences grow past a single moment because they gain in suspense and interest as they move past three seconds in length.
He kisses her for more than a moment, which sends your mind off spinning: How long is he going to kiss her? Is she going to slap him? No, holy crap, she’s kissing him back! Shit, her date sees him, he’s about to deck him, isn’t he?
The other thing about these particular moments is that they’re the obligatory scenes in the story.
Once the inciting incident kicks off —- once you find out the kid is going to prom alone — the question arises as to what he’s going to do about it. What’s he going to do at prom when he gets there? Yeah, he’s got a cool car, but what’s he going to do after he parks it and shows up at prom all alone? These moments answer that question, and so they deserve to play out over more than just a few seconds.
And this idea of set-up and pay-off brings us to…
Story Arc — Connecting Moments Together Meaningfully
The counterpoint to Spielberg’s blurb on “60 two-minute scenes” is his quote on story structure:
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
So it’s not only about individual scenes — they still have to be connected in a way that makes a point.
Obviously, this is a HUGE topic that many of the greatest minds in history have tackled. So by all means, go read what Aristotle had to say on the subject. Go read McKee’s Story and all the other modern-day story structure gurus.
But also, let’s maybe bring this down to the level of a blog post and talk about some quick and dirty how-to’s. And with that in mind, here’s what I’ve got for ya:
- Why “Therefore” and “but” are GOOD connectors, while “And then” sucks
- Brian McDonald on 3 Act Structure in a 5 minute documentary,
- Roy H. Wiliams on Choosing an Angle, Framing Your Scene, and Deciding How to End
- Set-ups and Pay-offs
- How Narrative Misdirection Makes Set-Ups and Pay-Offs More Powerful
- Applying Save The Cat‘s Beat Sheet to a 30-second Ad
And again, for me, the first element is key. If you’re not connecting one moment to the next through causation or upset, then what’s the point? Either you’re paying off the promise of a previous moment with a “therefore,” or you’re throwing the audience off-guard by subverting their expectations with a “but then.”
If you’re not doing one of those two things, you’re probably wasting time and losing the audience’s attention.
What Makes Great Theatre and Holds Attention
Ultimately, most ads suck because people think they’re making ads, and are willing to accept ads that sound like ads. They think ads don’t have to grab your attention and hold your interest like a great movie or TV show or radio drama.
They are breathtakingly, spectacularly wrong.
This is explained brilliantly over at the Sell! Sell! Blog [Emphasis Mine]:
The things that make a print advert work are the same things that make an editorial layout, or piece of printed art strong. The things that make a TV commercial great are the same things that make a TV programme, film or piece of video art great. The crucial difference being that, obviously, the ultimate job of the commercial work is to meet its brief; sell a product, change your opinion about something, etc. But still, the things that make it work in the end are the same craft skills that make other things strong in that media.
The problem comes when you forget this, and you think about making adverts. People tend to do things to adverts that they wouldn’t do to an editorial piece of design, or to a film. But unfortunately ads don’t get processed differently by people. Either it’s good or it isn’t good. There are no excuses just because it’s an ad. But still, people try to cram in way too much information, over-the-top branding, social media logos, and other guff, because it’s an ad.
Sometimes it makes you think that people, clients and agency alike, have forgotten how to make interesting things that also happen to be great ads, and they only know how to make things that look and sound like adverts.”
So the question you ought to be left with is: does your ad guy just make ads that sound like ads, or is he a master at grabbing and guiding people’s attention and desires?
Could your copywriter have scripted anything half as good as that Audi Ad?
P.S. Special shout out to my colleague Tim Miles for inspiring me to dissect this ad and answer exactly why I like it as much as I do.