Action Comics #1 starts with a baby superman-to-be sent forth from the doomed planet Kryptonite. Sent forth with his father’s desire that he become a force for good on Earth. The Amazing Spider-Man #1 tells how Peter Parker gained super-powers after he was bitten by the radio-active spider and how he became Spider-man in reaction to his uncle Ben’s murder.
In the same way, if you take any superhero movie that’s the first in its franchise, you’ll find a genesis story of that superhero — a tale that tells the audience:
- How the hero came to posses his powers,
- Who the hero is as a person, and
- What his mission is and Why he’s dedicated to it
If you don’t do that, you’re hero won’t be believable. Nor will he be sympathetic. You’ll end up with a character whose super powers will seem too fantastic and “made up,” and who will fail to inspire anyone to care about or root for him.
It’s that simple: no genesis story, no superhero.
Superheros and Advertising
Interestingly, the three tasks of a Genesis story overlay perfectly with Aristotle’s three elements of Ethos — the three things you must establish in order to persuade through an appeal to character. Here’s how they match-up, using Jay Henrich’s modern updates for the Ethos elements of phronesis, eunoia, and arete:
- Craft = Phronesis / Practical Wisdom = Powers
- Caring = Eunoia / Goodwill = Who the hero is as a person
- Cause = Areté / Virtue = Mission
Want to present a business owner as someone prospective customers should like and trust?
Then you need to cover these character elements. You have to convince the audience that the owner is great at what he does, that he cares about his customers, and that, at the end of the day, he’s on a bigger mission than just making money.
And once you understand the superhero angle, it becomes pretty obvious that the most powerful way to communicate these elements is through a Genesis story.
Put more directly, if you’re presenting the business owner as someone with superpowers — whether that’s the power to heroically save the customer from a tough situation, or simply the power to do X better than any other business on the planet — than you’re presenting them as a de facto superhero, and you need to tell the darn genesis story to make that message at all believable.
A Jewelry Superhero Genesis Story
Want an example of an Advertising Genesis story?
Here’s one from my business partner, Roy Williams [paragraphing mine]:
“When I was seven years old, I held my father’s head in my hands as he took his last breath and died. A thing like that stays with you. It helps you understand that relationships – people – are what life’s all about.You gotta tell’em you love’em.
This is J.R. Dunn. So now you know why I became a jeweler. Fine jewelry is one of the ways we tell people we love ’em. When I got older and fell head-over-heals for Ann Marie, the love of my life, I didn’t have enough money to buy her an engagement ring. She married me anyway. Go figure.
But I can promise you this: If you’re thinking of getting engaged to the love of your life, come to J.R. Dunn Jewelers in Lighthouse Point. No one in Florida, no one in America, is going to give you a better engagement ring for your money than me. One of the great joys of my life is to make it possible for guys to give the woman they love the diamond she deserves.
There was nobody there for me when I needed an engagement ring. But I promise I’ll be there for you.”
After hearing this ad, you now know, with absolute clarity:
- What kind of person J.R. Dunn is
- How he got his superpowers (along with how those superpowers can help you)
- What mission he’s on and why he’s dedicated to it
Better yet, you not only know these things about him, but you believe them. You believe these things about J.R. Dunn because he told you his genesis story. See how that works?
So what’s YOUR genesis story, and are you bothering to tell it the way it ought to be told?
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.
You can watch the entire bidding process in the embedded YouTube video, if you want, but I’d advise skipping to the 8:14 mark, where they interview the winning bidder:
In response to the question, “what made you want that car?” Rick Champagne gave the following list:
- I grew up in that era, so it meant a lot to me.
- I’ve been watching that car for 20 years and waiting for this day [when it would finally be sold]
- I’ve been a Barret Jackson customer for well over 15 years
- The car is going to go in my living room
- I KNEW I was going to get it
So, just a few reflections from me on the event and Mr. Champagne’s list:
Sentiment & Emotional Connection MATTERS
Yes, there is also exclusivity driving up the price of this car, but by far the biggest factor, and the one mentioned first by the winning bidder, is the emotional connection to the old TV show, and in turn, to the famous Batmobile.
If you’re not taking this into account — if you’re not baking a little Magical Thinking into your marketing and advertising — you probably ought to be.
Baby Boomers Control 70% of the Disposable Income in the US
Of course, given the era of the Batman TV show, it’s not surprising that the winning bidder was a Baby Boomer. But don’t overlook the fact that the majority of the buyers sloshing obscene amounts of disposable income around that auction house were also Boomers. That’s because Baby Boomer’s hold the majority of wealth and disposable income in America.
If you’re selling luxury or high-end products or services and your marketing speaks primarily to or from a youth mindset, you might want to rethink that.
Anticipation Combined with Confidence Is An Unbeatable Combo
Rick Champagne has been waiting to buy this car for 20 years. That’s a lot of anticipation, a lot of time Rick spent imagining himself buying that car.
Rick’s also done business with the auction house, Barret Jackson, for “well over 15 years.” That’s a lot of repeat business and confidence.
It also helped, of course, that Barret Jackson had the car’s original builder/designer and single-person owner on hand to further verify the authenticity of the vehicle. Personally, I think it would have been even better to have had Adam West there, too, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
At any rate, the end result is that Rick Champagne was absolutely 100% certain that he was getting exactly what he wanted — the 100% genuine real deal — from a company that he had full faith and confidence in to deliver.
This is why he walked into the auction KNOWING that he was going to walk out as the new owner of that car.
What does your company do to help people IMAGINE buying from you and IMAGINE getting the benfit from your product or service?
When people walk into your business do they KNOW that they are going to buy from you? Or do they think they might possibly buy from you, if the pricing is competitive and you seem to have what they want?
So what are YOU doing to:
- Take advantage of, or establish, emotional connections?
- Give people full faith and confidence in your product or service?
- Allow people to develop confidence in you through previous business dealings?
- Provide something worth waiting for?
Here’s a small business example: for most HVAC companies, the pay-off is when someone buys a new Heating and Air Conditioning System from them. That’s payday.
But the smart companies don’t wait for payday to try to get your business. They’d rather you develop confidence in them BEFOREHAND.
This process is started with great ads that establish an emotional connection to the listening audience. And if that emotional connection seems based on old-timey values and slightly older cultural references, well, that’s probably NOT an accident.
This emotional connection is further strengthened by the offer of value-priced, high-quality tune-ups and fast, effective repairs. A strategy that ensures prospects call YOU when they need a tune-up.
And after 5 or more years of having their system tuned by you, YOU become the first person they call when there is a breakdown — and the only people they trust when it’s time to buy that new system. Payday!
- advanced filtration,
- added humidity control,
- room temperature equalizing functionality, and
- energy saving features.
The kind of system that makes a home noticeably more comfortable and pleasant; a luxury system that the home owner desired for some time and planned on buying “someday,” when it was time for a new one.
And that’s how you can put some super-hero-powered CRACK-POW! — BAM! into your marketing and advertising.
It’s a slight change, but it makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?
The photo comes courtesy of a rather clever ad campaign for The Cape Times – something I was turned onto by the always-wonderful No Caption Needed blog. The intent was to make us see these iconic photos with new eyes, allowing the idea of a self-taken-phone-camera-pic to shake up a classic. And it worked.
But it also transforrmed the photos into something creepy, especially this one.
It’s one thing to look on as the ecstasy of victory so overcomes a sailor’s sensibilities that he kisses a stranger in the street; it’s entirely another when the sailor still has the self-awareness to phone-pic himself during his supposed blissed-out moment.
Sometimes, it’s just a whole lot better when someone else is controlling the camera and the spotlight. In fact, not just sometimes, but often.
Translating this to advertising and marketing:
- When others sing your praises, it comes off as credible and genuine; when you sing your praises, you come off as a wanna be Donald Trump
- When reviews praise an item to the sky, we believe it; when product copy does so, we read it with a large grain of salt
- When you tell me how great someone else is, you come off as passionate; when you tell me how great you are, you come off as arrogant
Well.. you get the picture. Why not let someone else hold the camera. Or, if you’ve got the camera, why not point it at something other than yourself?
That means take the dramatic focal point or purpose of a given scene, and move the “cut” or “fade in” — the entrance — as close to that point as possible. Eliminate the preamble.
Then, exit the scene as soon as you’ve accomplished the dramatic moment. Don’t tie up the lose ends and don’t spell out the ramifications. Let the audience fill in the gaps between one scene and the next.
This emphasizes the drama by cutting out the “boring bits.” And it works. But almost no one ever mentions the importance of ritual to this process.
Because a ritual is a defined process, one can enter into the middle of one and have perfect orientation around what’s going on — what happened before entering the scene and what to expect next. Expectations that can then be harnessed for suspense and/or subverted for surprise.
And ritual offers the same help for leaving a scene early: the audience already knows how the ritual is supposed to end. So the writer doesn’t have to show you, or he can highlight the dramatic departure from the ordinary by foregrounding how the ending differs from expectation. Brides are supposed to walk out of the church married to the man they met at the altar, so running away from the altar with a crazy man that showed up halfway through the ceremony (like in the graduate) is pretty dramatic.
Here’s a great video example of John August editing a newbies script and applying exactly this principle:
The ritual, in this case, is checking into a hotel. We’ve all done it, we know how that ritual starts and ends — so why show all of it?
For advertisers, entering a ritual late and leaving it early lets you squeeze more story into less air time. Like this Clorox ad:
The entire ad is built around a ritual that is then subverted to make a point. And that would be cool enough if it was just a typical 30-second ad, but if you look at the timeline on the video, it’s actually a 15-second spot. Clorox compressed the ad into half the typical timeframe, allowing them to combine two of these style ads — two full story arcs — into a 30-second ad-space.
Enter Late and Leave Early Through Ritual!
I’m a fan of explanatory videos for several reasons:
- High engagement (for at least the first 20 — 60 seconds). In a TL;DR world a well placed video will hold a visitor’s full attention for at least 20 seconds.
- Multi-media. You’ve got moving pictures, words, music, and sound effects all working to convey information and create emotion.
- Emotion & Impact. Nothing beats video when it comes to high-impact demos and/or conveying passion, enthusiasm and sincerity.
Unfortunately, very few explanatory videos take full advantage of these strengths.
- Many waste their high-engagement window with too much unadorned exposition and preamble.
- Most over-use the “say-it, show it” technique and under-use visual storytelling techniques to point where they become nothing more than poorly illustrated radio ads.
- And more than a few tend to overplay the cartoon-y animation in ways that undermine effective emotional impact
But Salesforce knocked their video on Cloud Computing out of the park. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now:
Granted, the video could jump to the point even faster than it does, but even still, the central meat of the message starts after 15 seconds — within the 20 second window of engagement. Moreover, the fast-moving animation easily keeps viewers’ attention until then. And after that, the video just keeps getting better.
Here are some specific aspects of the video that are worth noting, copying, and demanding from your explanatorry video, should you decide to get one:
1. The video counterpoints less-emotional words with more emotional imagery
For example, at the 40 second mark, the audio says “you call technical support, and they don’t know, so they blame someone else.” But the imagery shows the tech support guy lounging in a chair with his feet up, laughing at the customers predicament while mindlessly throwing darts. The neutral audio combines with the cutting video to create a messaging impact that’s greater than either one alone. Nice.
Another great example occurs when one stick figure “sticks up” a customer stand-in, firing a pistol that unfurls into a microsoft flag — all while the announcer says, ”…the way you pay for cloud apps is also different.” Well played, Salesforce. Well played : )
2. The animation enhances the emotional impact of the messaging rather than undermining it
At the 44 second mark, the video shows a rather unstable-looking stack of software, which topples when one of the software boxes get’s swapped out forr an upgrade. The toppling of the boxes is meant to represent and dramatize a serious real-world problem.
A less-effective video would show the stack crashing straight to one side or another, without employing any depth cueus. In cinematic terms, they’d use flat staging, more suitable to comedy than drama. Worse, they’d probably make the crash cartoony in a way that would belittle the real-world consequences supposedly represented by the animation.
In the Salesforce video, on the other hand, they show the stack crashing towards the camera/viewer, using depth staging and serious sound effects to enhance the dramatic effect of the crash. And it works, because the producers of the video knew their craft as visual storytellers.
You can see this same depth staging when the “hairball” crushes the small business two. The scene is shot at an angle, looking up at the advancing hairball, rather than shown flat.
Remember: videos should use serious staging and serious sound effects for serious subject matter.
3. The video builds upon visual symbols from one scene to the next
The Salesforce video emphasizes the mess of a software crash by creating a giant hairball of IT difficulty/failure around the toppled software stack at the 50 second mark. Then that same hairball crushes a small business under the weight of IT difficulties 10 seconds later, while the audio track says, “small businesses don’t stand a chance.” Great pairing of visual storytelling and symbolism (IT failure will kill your small business) with explanatory audio.
Later the video will also contrast the wobbly software stack displayed at the video’s 44 second mark with a nice, super-stable, cloud-supported stack of cloud-based apps showcased at the 2:40 mark.
4. The Video Makes Effective Use of Reality Hooks and Analogies
When the Salesforce video compares gmail with Microsoft Exchange, a light goes on. Anyone with the slightest gMail experience knows that it truly delivers on Apple’s claimed promise of “It just works.” gMail might not have the best interface in the world, but it does work uber-reliably, with no technical fiddling required on the part of the user.
So what better way to drive home the advantages of cloud-based computing over reguar, enterprise level software than bringing it to the level of immediate, shared experience. The ability to bring the benefits of cloud-based apps home to the viewer, serves not only as an explanatory analogy, but as a persuasive “reality hook.”
5. The video’s strongest and boldest claims are followed by a genuine “Here’s why” sequence
Starting at the 1:50 mark and running all the way till 2:10, the Salesforce video makes several bold claims about cloud-based apps: that you can be up and running in a few days, that their apps cost less, are more scalable and secure and reliable than regular software. Then, they give a nice reason-why explanation for those claims.
Right at the 2:10 mark the video launches into an explanation of multi-tenancy, comparing it to renting space in an office building (rather than paying for the whole building yourself). Strong, Relevant Claims + Credible Proof = Persuasion. The salesforce video gets this in a way that a lot of explanatory videos don’t.
6. The video uses music to its advantage
The Bottom Line
If you’re planning on creating an explanatory video for your business or start-up, it’s well worth the time to watch a bunch of them from different providers. Watch them with the sound off. Watch them with the sound on but the video covered up. Now ask yourself:
- Which ones make full use of visual storytelling?
- Which make effective use of music?
- Which take too darn long to get to the point?
- And which ones actual achieve both clarity and credibility regarding the products claimed benefits?
What you’ll probably find is that great explanatory videos require a strongly persuasive script AND strong visual storytelling. Just make sure you’re getting both parts of that equation into your video…
P.S. There are a lot of solid explanatory videos out there and I’ll be reviewing more in the coming weeks, so if you’ve got a favorite you’d like analyzed, link to it in the comments.