Friday, October 2, 2009

Commercial Storytelling

By John Gilstrap

Efficiency is key in writing fiction. In this contexts, efficiency means getting in and out of scenes at just the right time to keep the story moving along. It means using the right amount of dialogue to communicate just the right message.

I think there are lessons to be learned along these lines from television commercials—not all of them, of course, but from some of the good ones. I’m particularly partial to television ads that are less focused on selling a product than on selling an image. Product-oriented oriented ads can certainly be effective—I’m thinking of the new Mac vs PC ads, for example—but as effective as they are, I don’t see a lot of story.

I’m talking about commercials like the famous
Mean Joe Green Coca-Cola ad from twenty years ago. A hobbled football player makes his way down the tunnel on his way to the training room when a little boy offers him a coke to make him feel better. In the reaction, there’s a moment when the boy’s feelings are hurt, but then he’s richly rewarded. Great ad.

I also love the old
Folger’s Coffee ad where the college kid arrives in the wee hours to a home that is fabulously decorated for Christmas. The house is completely still, completely perfect. He puts on a pot of coffee and the family awakens.

Then there are the ones who choke me up every time. Anheuser Busch is among the best of the best. Remember the ad about
soldiers arriving home to the applause they should receive every time?

I was in a bar in Vail, Colorado for the Super Bowl in 2002 when Anheuser Busch’s
“Tribute” ad brought complete silence. The entire team of Clydesdales bows to the newly-mangled New York skyline. It still gives me a chill and brings a lump to my throat.

Think about what storytelling really is: It’s about making an emotional connection with your audience and driving it home. I think these examples do exactly that. How about you? Any favorite ads that tell a good story?


  1. Has there ever been a better ad than the famous Ridley Scott-directed "1984" Mac commercial? I went out that next week to get my first look at the Mac, and bought one shortly thereafter. I've been a "hammer thrower" ever since (though not as good looking as the one in the commercial).

  2. There’s an amazing commercial for Chanel #5 that manages to tell a complete story of chance encounter, romance, seduction, love lost and found on a train crossing Turkey, all in 60 seconds. Here’s the link: Watch the 60 second version first, then the longer version.

  3. The "Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials are classics. The story is implied, and you get just enough speech and images to let your imagination come up with the rest, and your imagination will always come up with something more interesting TO YOU than anyone else can. The tongue-in-cheek element sets the whole thing off.

  4. I'm trying to think of a way to incorporate the Allied Electronics paper catalogue vs. online catalogue commercial.

    Here's the commercial link.

    I love commericials and well done music videos that tell a story in a tiny encapsulated spot. Being an actor myself I love using body language to build a character. The hardest trick I find in writing is describing facial expressions to convey emotion in such a way a reader can see it thereby being able to use less words in the description.

  5. I used to love the coffee ads in England that gave short scenes from an evolving relationship. I would look forward to the next one coming out.

  6. The Hallmark commercials tend to make me cry, and the ones crack me up!

  7. I'm a fan of the E-Trade Baby commercials. And to tag onto a previous blog, Benny makes a great sidekick.