Shakespeare and the power of stories in advertising

I wrote this article for The Drum Magazine, pub 18 May 2007. Given the Shakespeare fest currently going in in the media in the run-up to the Olympics, I thought I’d post it here.

 

PLAY RIGHT. Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ is still often used as a model for understanding business ethics. But what can The Bard teach the modern businessperson? In a new book, 26 – the collaborative group of writers – draw inspirations to provide a new perspective on Shakespeare’s influence on modern business. Here, freelance copywriter Liz Holt asks, “Is this why TV commercials can be so powerful?”

Mass storytelling and the power of advertising

Shakespeare was one of the first to take stories to a mass audience in Britain. To watch a story acted on stage, Elizabethans rowed across the stinking heaving Thames and endured many hours on wooden seats or standing in the thrashing rain in the pit. All just to feel bewitched by a play. They chose to pay one penny for this instead of watching bear-baiting, cock-fighting or disappearing into a brothel. Audiences were often over a thousand strong.

It’s the intrinsic power of stories that may be Shakespeare’s most profound and probably unconscious influence upon copywriters today. The best TV commercials are mini stories. All the big brands down the decades – Stella Artois, Guinness, Levis, Bisto, Gold Blend, Smash and so on – use stories in this world of relatively homogenous products in the hope of creating a point of difference and a reason to buy that brand.

Until relatively recently here, plays and other stories had to be politically expedient; the power of stories was feared by the authorities. In Shakespeare’s time, The Master of Revels had the right to censor every play and shut theatres, if it was deemed too seditious. People lost their heads for less. Today, around the world, writers of all types still live in fear for telling stories in all their forms. Equally, the use of stories for political and commercial end is legendary.

So stories are often feared and used for their power – but why are they powerful?

As readers, listeners and viewers, we almost compulsively seek the experience of leaving our own reality to travel along with a story and feel somehow altered when we return.  In fact, if some emotional or rational shift doesn’t take place, we feel dissatisfied, as though the story hasn’t ‘worked’.

All of us tell stories, all the time. There’s something fundamentally human about constructing meaning by connecting one event to another in a narrative; we make sense of life through stories.

As we absorb a story, we unconsciously play out the reality of our own life in a different context, as if the distance helps us to see life in a new way. So we don’t just find stories entertaining or uplifting or exciting or frightening or whatever – at a subconscious level we find them helpful. We are living stories with a beginning, middle and end. Our life is a journey, a staggering metaphorical passage through time. As Carl Jung writes, at the most primitive level it’s a journey of survival from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, when we can reproduce and ensure the continuation of the species.

So stories could be archetypes: models of development that guide us as we move through our journey. It’s as if we are programmed to deliver stories to each other. Through stories we are unconsciously encouraged to overcome the physical and psychological challenges we face; stories resonate powerfully within our subconscious.

Despite the darkness and ambiguity of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, it has always been classed as a Comedy because a series of situations are resolved which bring about the romantic reconciliation of the two central couples. Comedy’s distinguishing feature is the movement from feelings of winter to summer, from shadow to light, from incompletion to wholeness. A key character or event brings self-revelation and fulfilment and greater self-knowledge so that the protagonist passes to the next stage of maturity. The premise of the resolution, according to the genre, is that discovering who you really are becomes a precondition to living happily ever after.

The premise that deeper self-discovery leads to happy-ever-after is an archetype that “speaks” to us in a way that bypasses our conscious mind. This could be why a sense of resolution can literally feel so satisfying and cause an emotional shift.

Most TV commercials have this sense of brightening and resolution – even if they don’t use overt humour – and therefore can be categorised as Comedy.

Is this why advertising can influence behaviour? Is it just peer pressure, the collective ego at work? (Even then, something must spark a new consensus within a peer group.) Or is it the way that a brand substitutes the character or event that creates the satisfying resolution? This is the case even when the brand is epitomised by a character.

So it’s the brand that changes the feeling of winter to summer, shadow to light, problem to solution, incompletion to wholeness. We may not consciously feel that a certain brand can make us more fulfilled / mature / happier / attractive, but at a deeply unconscious level, something else is taking place.

This profound story archetype influences us powerfully in our subconscious. It connects with the part of us that is programmed to receive and be influenced by story. If we are in the target audience for a commercial, the brand may be resonating very strongly within, creating an unconscious need for this brand.

I asked lots of people in the industry which TV commercials they felt worked the best: Tango’s “Orange guy” and “Blackcurrant”. Orange’s “Dancing couple”. Carling Black Label “Laundrette” and “Dambusters”. Gold Blend. Kwik Fit. Lynx. Pot Noodle “Miners”. Typhoo “Chimps”. Honda “Diesel”. Warbutons “Bread tree”. Guinness “Dancing man”. British Rail “Sighing chess pieces”… they all fit with this theory.

If Sony succeeds in their plans, by 2020 there’ll be no more TV screens. Instead, we’ll all be watching moving holograms in our living rooms, just like a mini stage. Everything – from advertising to the new and not-yet-launched Interactive Storytelling – will be communicated through a medium we don’t yet know. It will be more like a play… infinitely more dialogue-based. On this new stage, the focus will be upon the same elements – character-driven, believable action – that make Shakespeare’s stories so compelling.  And perhaps, alarmingly, the hidden, unconscious universal story archetypes will be even easier to exploit.

Extract from Chapter, “Mass Storytelling and the Power of Advertising”, by Liz Holt for the book, “The Bard & Co. Shakespeare’s role in modern business”. Published May 2007 by Cyan. Organised by 26 and The Globe Theatre, London.

 

By Liz Holt