Storytelling is at the crux of human existence: Sumanto Chattopadhyay
Guest Column: Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, Soho Square, on how stories set humans apart from other species
Once upon a time… these words had a magical effect on me in childhood. The child may have grown up, but that sense of wonderment has not diminished. Those opening words continue to cast their spell on both the personal and professional avatars of me.
Storytelling has been – and will remain – at the heart of advertising. But storytelling is bigger than advertising. It is more fundamental than that. It is at the crux of human existence. That is why Jonathan Gotschall, the American scholar of literature and evolution, said that a better definition of our species is Homo Fictus, the ‘storytelling animal’. It is the characteristic that sets us apart from other species.
Take a typical day in your life: you wake up with the memory of a dream—which, of course, is a story. You plan out your day – using the virtual reality capability of your brain to create a story of how you want your day to pan out. Over breakfast, you check out Facebook—where people tell idealised stories about themselves: the fabulous vacations they are on, the trendy restaurants they are eating at, the shiny awards they won. A friend may have shared a fascinating short film by your favourite European director – you end up watching this story and get late for work as a result. You make up an excuse about traffic to tell your boss – this too is a story. And then, if you work in advertising, you write stories—scripts for online videos, TV commercials, radio spots—all day for a living.
Just as you are about to leave for home in the evening, your client calls and asks for a new ad to be presented to him the next morning. You think of all sorts of things you want to do to him – a revenge story. As you eventually drive home after your exhausting day, you daydream about a vacation in Hawaii – a feel-good story. After dinner, you read a few pages of a novel, the good old paperback kind of storybook, and drift off to sleep. But while your conscious mind slumbers, your unconscious mind stays up all night, dreaming – telling you stories that symbolically interpret all that happened to you during the day.
Thus, 24/7, the human animal lives in a storm of stories.
So, when I am asked if advertising as we knew it is dead or dying, I say no: it is alive and fundamentally the same; because it is about telling compelling stories to connect with the consumer – and receiving and understanding information that way is hardwired into our DNA. This cannot change unless a drastic mutation alters humans completely. Yes, the medium through which you tell the brand or product story keeps changing. But each such change does not herald the end of advertising as we know it. Nor does it usher in the end of creativity – a bleak new world where only technology matters. Such pronouncements have been made every time a new medium has come along – from hoardings to newspapers to radio to TV to the worldwide web. But the false prophets should have realised that the medium, in these cases, is not the message.
In 1972, David Ogilvy released a print ad promoting his company. Its headline was ‘How to create advertising that sells’. It listed 38 techniques for advertising successfully. It ended by tantalising the potential client – to come to Ogilvy & Mather Advertising to get the complete list of methods for creating winning ads; a cliffhanger of a story if I ever read one. Many may look at this ‘outdated’ ad and say that advertising is, and has to be, completely different today. But is it? See the so-called listicles being run as native advertising by many brands in recent times: Intel ran a listicle on BuzzFeed, for example; its headline, ‘15 things we did at school that future students will never understand.’ One of the examples was writing on a blackboard with old-fashioned chalk. It was a great piece of content that tapped into nostalgia, cleverly reminding the reader of the company’s products. Another listicle on the same website was for Mini USA. ‘Places that look not normal, but are actually real,’ it read. It was a series of pictures of real places that looked, well, unreal. The brand signed off by tipping its hat to those who see things differently. It was an ingeniously simple and successful promoted post, a significant piece in the brand’s larger ‘not normal’ campaign.
Scholars consider lists to be the most ‘primitive’ form of storytelling. Cave paintings of animals were Paleolithic Man’s way of visually listing out the most important things in its world – animals that it had to protect itself from to survive and animals it had to hunt and eat, also to survive. When a child draws a picture with stick figures of himself, his siblings, parents and pet, standing in the garden in front of his house with the sun in the sky above – he is creating a visual list of the world as he knows it. Mini USA’s listicle too is a visual list, one that contains items from its brand world.
Lists, ancient and modern, hold sway over us, compelling us to pay attention to them. This is something that has not changed since the dawn of time, let alone the dawn of advertising – because it is a process hardwired into the most primitive part of our brains. Yet lists are just one form of story. Tales take on many different shapes, and each one possesses the inherent capacity to affect human beings—and therefore consumers—profoundly. Be they novels, movies and plays from the realm of entertainment or TV commercials, Twitter posts and Facebook carousels from the world of mass communication, it is the story element in them which gets us hooked – in a fundamental, biological way.
‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,’ said Maya Angelou. We realise our potential by expressing our innermost stories. Brands too realise their potential in a similar way. It is our job as advertising professionals to help them do this. To do justice to such a responsibility, we must adapt to changing times, mediums and technologies. But, at the same time, we should take care not to get caught up in their nuts and bolts – and to focus on being the storytellers that we were born to be.
(The author is Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, Soho Square- The Ogilvy Group)
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