What Hollywood can teach us about advertising

Storytelling has a fairly basic premise in its setup. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, Hollywood has capitalized, to the point where studios like Disney are now worth around $166 billion at the time of this writing (that’s a hell of a lot of princess memorabilia).

And the premise is essentially this: You have a hero, or protagonist. That hero is stuck in one way of living his life-usually it’s boring, mundane, or hopeless. The hero is then thrust into an adventure. The hero is helped by allies and a mentor who will teach him the “right” way, but will be challenged by an antagonist who stands in the way of his goal.

Hero defeats the bad guy, hero wins the story, and yadda yadda yadda….profit to the tune of $166 billion dollars, aaaaand credits. You get it.

It’s nothing new or revolutionary; that blueprint for storytelling has been around pretty much since the dawn of man; going all the way back to ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, where heroes like Perseus and Hercules captured minds and hearts for generations.

Many people smarter than I have argued that stories are ingrained in our very being. When we tell stories, people listen. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, we want to know how the story ends. In the advertising world-it’s really no different at all.

Yet, so many brands and advertisers get this concept wrong. Why? Because they are using the wrong hero in their story.

Here’s my humble take on why I think many brands get it wrong:

Because your product isn’t the hero.

I’ll pause to let that marinate with you for a while. It’s worth glancing up again for a sec, just to make sure it sinks in.

Ready? Okay, put simply-a good brand story envisions the customer as the hero, because who doesn’t want to be the hero of their story? We are the hero’s in our own stories, products just help us get there.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

When brands don’t understand the hero concept

“You broke my heart Freddo”

We all know the debacle that was the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner (poor girl, I hope her agent takes more flak than she does for this). I know you’ve seen it, but if you need a reminder, take another look.

Besides the obvious take that it was tone-deaf in a politically charged climate, the less talked about reason for the flop is because the ad presented Pepsi as the hero…not to the person drinking it (in this case, Jenner). Note that Jenner isn’t the hero, because she didn’t cause the change, Pepsi did.

A poor ad campaign will make the brand the hero. This means using the words “us”, “we”, and “our” a lot. It means constantly touting themselves and how great their product is. It means trying to convince people that their product/service is better than anyone else’s. We get it, you’re awesome, and we all suck.

The reason those ads aren’t effective is because no one really cares about their brand, or even their product/service. All people care about is how to make their lives better.


When a brand understands who the hero is

In a good campaign, say like this one from Subaru(which happens to be one of my all-time faves), the car is merely the ally. The hero of the story is the father, who still sees his daughter as a little girl who is not yet ready for the world. We know the father is the hero, because the ad is designed from a 1st person perspective, the perspective of the father.

The message from this ad is essentially:

Subaru is dedicated to safety, to help protect the ones you love.

Praise the customer, not products. A good brand story makes the customer the hero, and the product/service are merely the allies (or mentor).

So who is the hero in your story? Take that into consideration before anything else, and let the content take over from there. You will have taken the first step to that $166 billion dollar mark.