The highest grossing film in 1986 was Top Gun.  That story about the Navy Fighter Weapons School has also been dubbed “the Navy’s best recruiting tool ever.”  This Hollywood movie resulted in an increase of 20,000 U.S. military recruitments over the previous year, and about 16,000 of those recruits signed up for the Navy. That’s the power of a compelling story.

In an article in Ad Week last fall, copywriter Mac Schwerin says “Advertising Isn’t Storytelling.” He goes on to say, “Advertising is an objectively terrible format for storytelling.”  I disagree.

According to research cited in Ad Week, “nine out of 10 people who can skip an ad do.”  In the digital world, we now live in the age of ad blockers. Between ad blockers and general disinterest, how can you beat those terrible odds for your advertising?  By storytelling.

Jerome Brunner, the author of Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, says “People are 22 times more likely to remember and internalize a story than facts or bullet points.”

Stories are elemental to human life. It has been, is, and ever will be.  Stories pack high emotional content and grab us in ways that facts and logic don’t.  Good stories can make a connection with our audience that exceeds other methods by far.  How far?  Look at the following example from the Airbnb website.



Airbnb tells the stories from “the Airbnb community” to showcase some of their offerings and celebrate some of their hosts.  There was another reason Airbnb took this approach.  It was to build their brand.  Their ad agency,  TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, launched an ad campaign in 2016 to establish Airbnb as a global brand.

What Airbnb wanted to communicate through their marketing was one simple idea: “Airbnb lets you travel like you live there.”  The campaign theme, “Don’t go there. Live there.” communicated the idea that to stay in an Airbnb was to experience a travel destination in a way that the usual tourist experience can’t give you.

Their ad agency produced short films with provocative titles like “Don’t go to Paris”, “Don’t go to LA” and “Don’t go to Tokyo”.  The films told a story: “When you stay on Airbnb, you have your own home. Make your bed. Cook. You know, do the stuff you normally do.”  Television spots were purchased to tell this story.

Another storytelling ad has generated over 17 million views on YouTube.  You can see the power of this ad by clicking here:



Straight advertisements – headlines, images, body copy, and call to action are easy to pass over – everyone knows the advertising drill.  They may not be able to name all the parts of an ad, but they know an ad’s general structure.  Stories, not as much so.  How can you incorporate stories into your advertising?

Using Storytelling in Advertising

  1. Who is your audience?  What story do you have to tell that will connect with them?
  2. How will you make your audience care about what you have to sell?  The emotion of the story you choose to tell needs to connect with your audience on an emotional level, like Justino or John Lewis in the ads above.
  3. A compelling story holds attention is our short attention span world.  A story that isn’t compelling has the same problem as any ad that doesn’t connect with a target audience.  Typically, a good story has a protagonist with a goal in mind that they fail to achieve.  This puts the audience into the frame of mind of rooting for the likeable protagonist, like Justino.
  4. Make sure that your story has a beginning, middle and end.  The Justino ad is a good example of this.  The beginning introduces your story and characters.  The middle gives the problem of the story and conflicts that your protagonist must navigate.  In the end, there is a resolution that highlights your product, service, or entire brand.
  5. Make sure that your story tells a that is true to what you have to offer potential customers, clients, or patients.  Deceiving through story is no better than deception practiced through other marketing means.

Want more on how to use storytelling in your advertising?  I cover this topic in more depth in my book, Words That Sell: Creating Advertising With Irresistible Influence.  Click here for more.

I invite your comments and questions, and your likes and shares.



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