Mind the gap: creating a need for stories in content marketing

VW BeetleLemon.

It’s possibly the most famous headline in advertising. And it’s not without irony that such a succinct summary of one particular VW’s story has spawned almost as many words of deconstructive analysis as Hamlet.

But recently, for me, this ad was placed in a new context. One that gave it a zesty refresh.

Earlier this month, Brand Republic hosted an insightful session titled Telling Your Brand’s Story Through Content. The opening speaker was John Yorke, managing director of Company Pictures and former head of drama at the BBC and Channel 4.

Having written or commissioned TV classics as diverse as EastEnders, Shameless and Wolf Hall, it’s fair to say Yorke knows a fair bit about spinning a yarn.

In his talk at the Brand Republic Session, Yorke successfully distilled his every waking thought on the history and purpose of storytelling into 35 minutes. Lemon? Concise? Pah. Waffle.

He covered story archetypes, their ingredients, Hollywood’s three act structure, Hegelian dialectics and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal fountain. Along the way he touched on the VW/DDB lemon ad and how it functions, concentrating his analysis on the immediate cognitive impact of the word and picture juxtaposition, and how the dissonance between them is instantly processed by the human brain.

Specifically, he spoke of how the ad takes advantage of the Kuleshov effect, otherwise known as the law of associative coherence. That’s the brain’s default way of interpreting two seemingly unconnected things – to assume a connection and attempt to infer meaning. Or, crucially, to search for the story that connects one thing to another.

In other words, we humans are hardwired to process and understand the world through stories. We use them to impose order on an otherwise random eruption of events, images and actions.

Our brains are creating stories every minute of every day in order to understand what’s going on around us. Without those stories, we just can’t function.

And neither can the world of marketing. The best marketing activity works by quickly grabbing people with a gripping story, even if it isn’t telling the whole tale. It’s especially so on platforms like YouTube.

Our creative director for content, Jim de Zoete, blogged last week about the importance of dramatic openings in the online space, where a plethora of tempting distractions are merely a click away.

You have to grab your audience by the throat in about three seconds. In the case of our Hyundai work, our opening frames present a man lying flat out on the ground, with a man and a boy standing over him, looking panicked, with the boy saying: ‘You’re going to prison’.

It’s a scene that immediately creates dissonance for the audience – a gap between expectation and perception that needs filling with a story: “Er, why’s this film about a car starting with a decked man and talk of prison?”. It then tempts the audience to infer meaning: “Oh, maybe they’ve knocked him out”. Ultimately we willingly dive headlong into the welcoming story-gap: “I wonder how and why they did that?”

Creating the gap works. To have a go yourself, try my magic story-gap-creating formula: Perceived Dissonance + Law of Associative Coherence = Tell Me a Story Please, Mr Marketing.

It worked for VW back in 1960. It’s working for Hyundai in 2015. And it could work for you too. Send me your weirdest suggestions for an arresting opening image or scene. The author of best suggestion receives a lemon. And a restraining order.

Michael Reeves, business development director, Red Bee Media