Jon King – The Irresistible Rise of Meaning

Jon King, Managing Director, Story Worldwide

In the 1950s, Rosser Reeves, one of the original Mad Men, boasted that his $8,200 creative for Anacin had made his client more money than “Gone With The Wind.

It was probably true. The famous ads — a distressed woman with shocks and hammers rattling her skull and  the tagline: “Tense, Nervous, Headache?” — epitomized Reeves’ belief: that the relentless repetition of a USP (a phrase he coined) could metaphorically hammer consumers into surrender. The model has barely changed for half a century since. The basic unit of classical advertising is still a USP supported by paid media. But it’s getting harder to get consumers to pay attention; they’re alienated by slogans and seek meaning and higher purpose both in their lives and the brands they choose.

Advertising today, like Pop, is eating itself. It’s reached the stage of pattern exhaustion, a phenomenon in which cultures increasingly depend on variations of traditional designs and become less creative. Classical advertising wasn’t built for a networked world: slaves to the  message, its exercises in social media reveal an addiction to recycling and republishing: everything must change so that everything can stay the same. A new notion has emerged, that isn’t new at all, as an alternative.

Story telling.

Stories are of supreme importance to human beings, since these are the memes that make sense of our world. It’s practically hard-wired into human consciousness[i][ii]. A tale  from someone you care about or respect brings recommendation, adoption and allegiance. Because  stories are so highly valued, brands need to think differently of themselves as stories. This is said everywhere, and everyone seems to agree, even ad agencies; but they have little useful to contribute: cognitive dissonance only goes so far. Real storytellers hardly ever work in ad shops.

Narrative is a discipline with guiding principles that have emerged from the human experience and universal cultural insights. A great story, according to Sam Goldwyn, was:

1/ Introduce a character.

2/ Put him up a tree.

3/ Throw rocks at him.

4/ Bring him down again.

It’s a neat story arc, a notion at the heart of the planet’s most lucrative industry built on storytelling: the movie biz. For a more rigorous view, it’s worth looking at one of Hollywood’s canonical texts: Joseph Campbell’s “The hero with a thousand faces”. []

The book, first published in 1948 and described by Time magazine as “one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English,” is a foundational work within film studies. Campbell, a leading academic mythologist, had a breakthrough cultural insight when he realized that the most powerful stories follow a narrative progression with consistent rules that are remarkably similar across all cultures.

He called this “The Hero’s Journey,” in which a protagonist — who usually emerges from ordinary life — is exposed to a call to adventure that follows a sequence of 12 basic episodes through denial and test to fulfillment. He found that the tales which human beings find most satisfying inevitably follow a pre-ordained course, and the model applies to fairy tales, myth and film, from Fight Club to Cinderella.


Source: Christopher Vogler’s version of The Hero’s Journey

Successful authors, screen-writers, anthropologists, journalists and artists already understand that the craft of storytelling isn’t based on sentences or arresting straplines, but on a journey in which characters represent our lives and desires.

Content marketers, who have a relentless focus on understanding audiences, seek to find a meaningful meta-narrative which the audience will recognize, and meld it to an empathic brand with an authentic voice. The Hero’s journey, applied to the new marketing, could become a model to assess and commission campaigns and content that audiences will instinctively value. These combined elements can create communities that are real, rewarding (for everyone) and sustainable, bonded by a contagious story, both social glue and inspiration, to win a disproportionate share of an audience’s attention, devotion and spend. Which means that, in an idealized brand story, our hero – the consumer – is taken on a fulfilling life journey , supported by the brand as mentor. After ordeals, tests and trials, now back in the real world with the magic elixir, he or she will evangelically share the brand’s story for free.

The new marketing — in which the basic unit is now a story supported by sharing — can finally satisfy deep desires we all recognize: to be among friends in communities governed by mutual respect and shared ideals.

Should brands care?

They don’t have any choice. Brands can’t bet the farm any longer on inefficient media spend built on USP’s with a dubious ‘U’. If they do, they may lose the new consumer for good. The competition is too fierce: today, brands compete for attention with games, film, TV, music, photographers, bloggers, whatever.

To survive in a new world order of promiscuous audiences and proliferating media, brands must learn to mediate value with consumers to create meaningful relationships. They should be wary of shiny new marketing toys, and think twice before asking traditional agencies to create contagious stories: their inadequacies are too obvious. Pervasive messages aren’t stories. There are no Hero’s Journeys in slogans.

In a 2012 Nielsen survey consumers were asked which media they most trusted and which most influenced purchase. The top answers:

1/ people you know

2/ people’s opinions published online

3/ editorial

4/ branded websites

5/ “emails I signed up for”.

Friends and virtual strangers have become the most influential voices a brand could want. 30 second spots or pop-ups — and maybe branded websites, too — have decreasing traction. Expect the traditional model to be replaced, as bronze was in the Iron age.

The memes will triumph. And Gone With The Wind will go on earning, its long tail twitching furiously, a testament to the enduring power of great narrative.

A story will reach the parts advertising cannot reach.