What can comics teach us about storytelling? If you’re reading this, you likely focus on storytelling in the context of brand communications. And like me, you might ask yourself, “Are there even similarities between comics and advertising?” I can tell you, after reading Scott McCloud’s books, “Understanding Comics” and “Making Comics,” that the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” You see, it doesn’t matter if you work in comics, advertising, movies, or any other medium – the principles of good storytelling are universal. And that is exactly what these books teach us: How to tell a good story.
In advertising, “storytelling” has been a buzzword for quite some time. It is nearly impossible to read anything related to marketing or advertising and not hear this all-important term. And while there may be other new and exciting topics to talk about in our industry, here I am, writing about storytelling. Why? Well, because it IS important. And it is especially crucial in advertising as brands try to make meaningful connections with consumers and create long-term branded memories in their minds.
Below is a list of five principles from McCloud’s books that can help brands tell a clear and purposeful story to consumers:
1. Sequence, Transitions, and the Importance of Cognitive Ease
Advertisers have a limited amount of time to connect with consumers. Whether it is due to the length of the creative itself in a TV advertising environment or the myriad of distractions in a social media/digital environment, all brands are working on borrowed time. Given this fact, it is important to make it as easy as possible for consumers to process the information you are presenting to them. Known as “cognitive ease,” the idea is simple: Don’t make viewers work too hard! McCloud talks a lot about sequence. Interestingly, sequence is also the very first thing my kindergarten daughter learned in school this year. In her case, she would have to put pictures in sequential order: the dog played outside in the mud, the dog was given a bath, the dog dried off. This is something we learn at age 5, and something that our System 1 brain can easily process. However, brands will sometimes present events out of sequence in their advertising. And while this can be a creative way to tell a story, it also requires more mental effort from viewers. In an ad for a telecommunications company, the viewer follows a little boy as he slowly grows older. However, right before the ending, the ad goes backward in time to revisit the now teenage boy as a young boy again. While this creates a sense of nostalgia and positive feelings, viewers become lost while trying to reorient themselves to this out-of-order scene and visual engagement is lost during this sequence.
Cognitive ease is also a factor during scene transitions. McCloud details the different types of transitional techniques, including the “scene-to-scene” transition. This type of transition is often used in advertising but can be hard for viewers to follow. In an ad for a regional coffee brand, the story begins outside in nature. However, the story quickly transitions to the inside of a restaurant…and then to back out to nature…and then back inside the restaurant, again. With every scene change, viewers must try to reorient themselves within the story. These quick transitions take place faster than respondents’ brains can process the information. As a result, many important moments in the ad end up on the “cutting room floor” of consumers’ memories.
2. Communicating with Clarity
McCloud says that “clarity is the path that leads to the goal of understanding.” For advertising to be successful, it is imperative that consumers understand the intended message, or messages. However, strictly sticking to a clear and rational message might lead to softer entertainment and engagement. On the other end of the spectrum, McCloud explains, is intensity. This is where you can capture attention and razzle dazzle your viewers. While both clarity and intensity can work together, it is also a balancing act. Too much clarity with too little intensity can lead to boredom. However, too much intensity with too little clarity can distract from your story and key message. Sticking to a single-minded message is one of the best ways to achieve clarity. It can also be executed in a manner that is captivating and intriguing. While the idea of being “single-minded” might sound boring, it doesn’t have to be. As one of my colleagues says, “Single-minded doesn’t necessarily mean simplistic. You can have a connected series of ideas, but keep those connections clear.”
3. Choosing Words and Images That Communicate Together
When words and pictures both send roughly the same message, McCloud calls this a “duo-specific” technique. And while he explains that there are multiple ways that “words and pictures can work together to maximize clarity,” A/V synch is probably the most common technique used in advertising.
Audio/visual sync is a term that has been around for a long time and whose importance, in terms of lifting performance and recall, continues to hold true today. In today’s distracted viewing environment, if you only show your brand on screen but do not say it, those who might be scrolling through Facebook as the ad comes to a close might miss that last, key branding moment.
4. Creating Compelling Characters with Inner Lives and Unforgettable Appearances
It is hard to imagine a story without characters. Using characters in advertising helps to add engagement and relatability. McCloud explains that there are three qualities that no great character can do without—visual distinction, expressive traits, and an inner life. Oftentimes, a brand uses characters to tell one story and then consumers never see them again. In these cases, it would be tough to apply McCloud’s character principles. However, many advertisers aim to use spokespeople and other consistent characters as brand icons—people you see and instantly know which brand they represent. In these cases, it is easy to see where McCloud’s ideas fit in.
Think of Flo, from Progressive. Her trademark hair, red lipstick, and crisp, white uniform represent her “visual distinction.” Her over-the-top enthusiasm and humor are her “expressive traits,” while her overwhelming desire to help customers gives us a peek into her “inner life.” Remaining consistent with these three qualities over many years has helped Flo become an undeniable success for the brand. Leveraging McCloud’s books can help advertisers develop a unique character that has the potential to become an icon that consumers can both connect with and easily identify as representing their brand.
5. Utilizing All Five Senses
We use all five senses every single day. However, advertising exists in a dual-sensory world, using only sight and sound to communicate. How can ads also communicate touch, taste, and smell? One of the best ways is to appeal to consumers’ mirror neurons. In simple terms, mirror neurons allow us to adopt another person’s point of viewer when we watch them perform an action. It is a mental rehearsal of sorts. This works exceptionally well in food advertising. We all know that the goal of food advertising is to make the food look so delicious that we want to go out and buy it and eat it for ourselves. The best way to do this is to create a virtual experience for the consumer. Showing someone not only eating the food, but also enjoying the food, is key. As cliché as the “bite and smile” might sound, it gets those mirror neurons firing in the minds of consumers. Mirror neurons also come into play in advertising that features technology. Many of the most successful ads in this space show a character physically interacting with the technology. Think about those first iPod Touch ads. Showing someone holding their phone and using the app helps consumers mentally rehearse the situation and can help create memories of brand satisfaction.
In the evolving world of advertising, good storytelling has become table stakes for a brand’s success. By utilizing the ideas in McCloud’s books, advertisers can tell coherent brand stories that will both resonate with consumers as well as form long-lasting branded memories in their minds.
I would love to hear your thoughts. If you haven’t read them, please do. I think you will get as much out of them as I have.
Ashley Shelley, Research Director