What Bad Storytelling Teaches Us About Writing Good Ads

Why The Phantom Menace sucks — and why it matters.

Let’s be real. The Phantom Menace sucks.

Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace is, critically, the worst Star Wars film. It’s certified “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes with an aggregated score of 55%, and it holds the lowest IMDB score of any film in the franchise (6.5). Though critical reaction was mixed upon release, the film has since fallen into notoriety — so much so, Disney refuses to set any of its new IP in the prequel time period, aside from two limited-run Marvel comics.

It’s also the film that began prioritizing product over story. Though The Phantom Menace sets the stage for every major cinematic achievement in the early 21st century, from The Lord of the Rings to Sin City, the film itself sucks. It’s bloated, boring, tone deaf, and borderline offensive at times; it feels less like a story and more like a corporate Star Wars checklist: there are Jedi, lightsabers, royalty, chases, romances (sort of), Darth Vader (sort of), the Force (sort of), music, droids, spaceships, aliens, good guys, bad guys, comic relief, stars, and wars.

‘Did you read the opening crawl?’ Check.

‘Did you notice the John Williams score?’ Check.

‘Did you catch all the original trilogy references?’ Double check.

There’s so much content, there’s no time to stop and appreciate it. And there’s almost no reason to care about any of it: the stakes aren’t high enough, and the characters aren’t relatable enough.

The Plinkett Test

To illustrate, here’s a clip from Red Letter Media’s review of the film. In it, Mr. Plinkett asks people to describe characters from the prequel trilogy without referencing their appearances, job titles, or costumes. This is their response.

To no one’s surprise, prequel characters are hard to describe. Why? Because they have no character. Queen Amidala is her costume; Qui Gon Ginn is his job; Anakin Skywalker is his age. There’s nothing deeper that defines them. Original trilogy characters, by contrast, are much more vibrant. Han Solo is charming, cocky, and roguish. Chewbacca is a big softy; C-3PO is prissy. These characters are memorable because they have personalities. They aren’t merely vessels for the plot.

So what can we learn from The Phantom Menace? And how can those lessons affect the way we approach advertising copy?

Good ad copy tells good stories.

Imagine your favorite ad. It might be Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign or Volkswagen’s “Lemon” ads. What single element do these ads share?

They tell stories.

Rick Boyko, former creative president of VCU’s Brandcenter, sums up the entire industry in one sentence: “We are storytellers in service of brands.” (Sullivan 143).

On paper, our job is to deliver leads and/or clicks for our clients. In reality, our job is to intrigue, entertain, and compel — to find the middle ground between the client, the audience, and ourselves and to force people pause, reflect, and act. We are music makers, the dreamers of dreams. We are the latest generation in a near-infinite lineage of master storytellers whose ranks include William Shakespeare and Herman Melville. Our work literally changes lives.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Want to go “viral”? Tell human truths.

Several industry leaders preach this exact message. Ed Robinson, co-founder of the Viral Factory, insists that ads should use the truth to emotionally stir people. He writes:

“This is the key for us — does the idea hold a human truth which goes beyond us (An advertising agency getting paid to flog some stuff) and the client (who thinks only of their product). If it doesn’t then it has no viral potential” (Iezzi 86).

Simply put, we can’t move audiences with bland words. We can’t go “viral” (if that’s the word you really want to use) without stories that tell hard truths.

Like The Phantom Menace, most ad copy I see at work treats content like a checklist:

What’s the product called? Check.

What is it? How much? Check.

Should I click to learn more? Double check.

Though necessary, these features alone will not sell products long-term. Basic ads present too much information and don’t tell a story. They don’t intrigue our audience, and they don’t compel them to click. (Yes, telling someone to click doesn’t actually work.) There is no “character”; instead, they feel cold, corporate, and calculated.

Got [Blue] Milk?

In the early 90s, milk was on the decline (can you believe it?). For over 100 years, marketing companies sold milk the same way: by listing benefits. “MILK BUILDS STRONG BONES.” While this strategy worked for most of the 20th century, it had soured by the 90s.

Enter Jeff Goodby and the “Got Milk?” campaign.

Instead of listing benefits, Goodby told a story through deprivation: the speaker doesn’t have milk, and they want it. There’s tension, there’s conflict, and it leaves the resolution hanging to inspire consumer action (Sullivan 145). This is the exact kind of writing we should be doing. ‘Call a recruiter” and “sign on bonus available” will sour eventually. If it can happen to milk, it can happen to trucks.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at it a different way.

Using the Plinkett Test On Ad Copy

Here are two competing headlines I saw recently:

  1. Now Hiring Company Drivers
  2. Welcome to the Big Time

How do these headlines make you feel? What’s your gut reaction to them?

Let’s run them through the Plinkett test. Describe the “speaker” in these headlines without describing what they look like, what they might be wearing, or what profession they might have.

Chances are, you can’t describe the “character” in the first ad — not without describing their clothing or job title.

The second “character” is much clearer. He’s a straight shooter, the kind of guy who speaks from his chest and walks with a swagger. Even when he’s not the boss, he commands your respect. He’s someone you can trust when the going gets tough: he won’t sugar coat bad news, and he won’t skimp out on congratulations. He’s a good guy.

Further, I ran both of these through Coschedule’s headline analyzer, which grades headlines on usage, frequency, and relevance. Here’s a link to their analyzer, if you’re interested.

The first scored a 30, and the second scored a 79. Whoa.

Simply stating the obvious doesn’t compel anyone to act. However — strong, emotional language, matched with a call to action (i.e. a story) both builds a relationship with the audience and compels them to click.

For fun, I also ran the phrase “The Phantom Menace” through the headline analyzer. It scored a 41. There are no emotional triggers, no action words, and no uncommon language. “The” takes up way too much real estate and leaves “Menace” to carry the brunt of the headline. It shows a strong negative sentiment and it contains too few words and characters. In short, The Phantom Menace is not only a bland movie, it’s a bland headline, too.

Tl;dr: Don’t be like Star Wars. Tell a simple, coherent, interesting story.


Iezzi, Teressa. The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Sullivan, Luke. Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads, 4th Ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review.” Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review, YouTube, 9 Apr. 2012, youtu.be/FxKtZmQgxrI.

Originally published at irrecollections..