February 8th, 2010 by Will Entrekin

What Writers Can Learn from Superbowl Ads

It was nice to see Drew Brees and the Saints go marching into the end zone so many times last night, and terrific to see the Saints’ owner declare that New Orleans is back, just a few years after having been so devastated by Katrina. Part of the reason was that they’re a fine team, but another was the narrative: their city devastated, the Saints nursed their wounds and worked hard for three years to come into a game as underdogs–I think only that Coach guy predicted they might win, and even he said “My head is going with Indianapolis, but my heart says New Orleans.”

And they pulled off a solid victory after a nail-biting first half and then one of the most brilliant second halves in Superbowl history. Seriously, I’ve never seen an onside kick like that in a regular game, much less the big one that counts.

We like our narratives. We always have.

Of course, the other reason everyone was watching the game was the commercials. We love them. While watching the game I heard someone say that half the people tuning in were only doing so for the commercials. And we can learn a lot more from them than simply that Intel has a new processor and Geico still saves you fifteen percent or more.

First, apparently we learn the misandry. The big “fuck you” to Flo TV, with its disparagement of a guy shopping for candles with his girlfriend. I’ve already seen a few people call it misogyny, but it’s not; they’re against guys, and there are several. Apparently, we guys do a lot of things, like wake up early and brush our teeth, and then listen to what you say about our friends and what your friends say about our friends, but our last stand is a Dodge (?). Also, we are illiterate and will only discuss books if clubs about them include hot girls and booze.

Which is why Dove rocked, for airing a commercial for a beauty product aimed squarely at men who care about our appearances. Rock on, Dove.

That aside, what’s great to look at is the narrative structures. Commercials are an inherently tricky form, relying so much as they do on economy–not financially, but in terms of scale and structure. I’ve actually worked on commercials that have aired during the Superbowl; an Accenture one fro 2001 stands out in memory. It featured a set-up concerning Rome, if I’m not mistaken. It cost a shit-ton of money to produce. Minute for minute, that commercial may have cost more to produce than Cameron’s Avatar. But our clients could afford it because we weren’t working with minutes; we were working with seconds.

Which is all you get. Most commercials are approximately 30 seconds long, give or take. Some run longer, up to about a minute or so, but that’s exceedingly rare; more common is for the spot to run short so that broadcasters can fit more adverts into the same commercial break, thus boosting the number of sponsors of a show and thus earning the company a bit more coin.

When that’s all you get, you have to make every second count. Just about every spot needs a narrative, and just about every narrative has the same structure: problem, action, resolution.

I think this is important. I think too often writers get so concerned with other things we forget about the whole something happening thing. Read just about any story in The New Yorker, which is probably the place where you’re going to find the most examples of short stories in which nothing much happens at all. Some character has mangst, or some couple experiences the ennui of suburban domestic living, but here’s a clue: if your plot relies on the word ennui to make sense, chances are it’s not actually a plot in the first place. And no, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark isn’t actually an exception to that suggestion; if anything, it’s an example of it.

The better commercials followed that example. Like the Bud Light “Asteroid” spot:

Which has a simple set up: “Oh noes, killur emteor!!1 We all dies.”

What’s interesting is that it breaks the commercial form; usually, the problem set up is one for which the product pitched is a solution. “Have this problem? Product X solves it. Go buy our stuff.”

Like the Betty White Snickers spot, which was the first great commercial I saw:

Set up: feeling old and not-so-quick-on-your-feet as Betty White during a football game?

Solution: Snickers.

Simple, and totally effective. Not to mention completely hysterical. Betty White tackled? I mean, who doesn’t love Betty White?

But the best commercial is a true study in economy of storytelling. It was Google’s:

It is absolutely insane how much this one spot accomplishes in less than 50 seconds, besting the dreck-y (500) Days of Summer as best romantic story put on film all year. Start with a blinking cursor in a search field, before it literally tells a story of courtship from meet to marry to child. Besides a map or two, it is nearly solely text, and it uses some great, efficient tricks to make the best use of its 50 seconds, from demonstrating that Google auto-suggests corrections for your terrible spelling to my favorite part when Google auto-suggests searches at “How To”: we get tie a tie after a church search, which pretty much every dude needs to search before the big day, to the crib question.

That, right there, is genius execution of storytelling.

Luckily, I think we’re getting better at this. It’s the first time I’ve seen extra-textual elements used so effectively. I caught some short story some writer told through Google Maps, which feels as gimmick-y as the so-called “vooks” all the publishers seems so terribly excited over, but there in that ad is an example of how to use those things to actually tell the story without making something like auto-suggest seem like a gimmick.

But highlighting things writers need to remember: set up, conflict/problem, resolution. Something must happen or change. Otherwise, it’s not so much that there’s no point to telling a story but rather that there’s absolutely no story to tell.

Edit to add: updated the Google ad. The YouTube search I had done surprisingly returned a parody as the first hit, and I didn’t bother watching it because I, you know, had last night. Fixed now.

Comments

2 Responses to “What Writers Can Learn from Superbowl Ads”
  1. The humor of the Betty White ad completely overshadowed the product it was selling. I found that I was still thinking about it five minutes later but realized I couldn’t remember what it was advertising. Not sure if that actually counts as a “win” from an advertising perspective.

    All in all though I found that a lot of the ads this year really just made my skin crawl. Many of them where flatly stupid, and there seemed to be a running misogynistic undercurrent; lots and lots of exortations to men to “reclaim” their manliness, stop being so feminized, etc. Such an overt level of rah-rah machoness it was like they’d all been designed by the boys at Sterling Cooper. The one that really struck me was the car ad (I forget which car-whoops) in which Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) reads a list of “obligations” he performs for his wife that justify him getting said automobile. The subtext of passive-agressiveness & emasculation resentment was barely a subtext at all.

    That Google ad, on the other hand? Brilliant.

  2. Right, Matt. That’s what I meant by saying that they were against guys. Bud Light had one of the huge missteps with their book club spot.

    I’m not sure it’s misogyny; that’s hatred of women. This strikes me as misandry; tearing down men in any way they can, preying on male insecurities and noting rewards for being “good little boys.” It’s inherently misandrist.

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