How Storytelling in the Golden Age of Advertising Still Influences the Digital Age

If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’re familiar with the phrase “show don’t tell.” This is one of those old sayings that hammers home the need for a writer, a good writer, to make his audience experience what is written instead of just reading it. All good writing makes use of this rule, whether it’s a script, short story, novel, poem or even ad copy. The writer doesn’t just tell a story, he reveals it and lets the reader experience it. This type of storytelling is integral to the future of marketing in the digital age.

Some History from the Golden Age of Advertising

You might not think of advertising as the most suitable place for storytelling but that’s simply wrong. Writers have always employed the art of storytelling in crafting ads that drive sales, build brands and set up a product or service as something that the consumer can see themselves using, not just wanting.

In his book, “Ogilvy on Advertising,” ad-master David Ogilvy gives an example of good storytelling with this ad. The ad tells the story of a Zippo lighter that is swallowed by a fish and is then used when a fisherman recovers it from the belly of his catch. The ad admits the story is “quite a yarn” but that Zippo still guarantees to repair one of its lighters that don’t work, even if it’s found inside a fish. This ad appeals to the individual looking for a durable lighter that will work but also reminds the consumer of the Zippo guarantee.

Another excellent example of storytelling used in marketing is this 1951 ad by none other than literary juggernaut Ernest Hemingway. “Papa,” wrote the ad for Ballantine Ale. If you’re familiar with “The Old Man and the Sea,” you’ll recognize the story of a man and a marlin and the threat of sharks, except add a refreshing, invigorating ale. This ad is a particularly good example of “show, don’t tell.”  You’re transported and can see yourself not just drinking, but deserving to drink the ale that Hemingway says is only earned after hard work.

The Future of Content in the Digital Age

The thing to remember is that both of the ads mentioned above were printed in magazines. People didn’t mind reading these stories back when they were printed. But print ads have been pushed aside by the rise of digital media. Today, these stories might make decent blog posts, but there’s no way that an ad which requires that much reading would be successful. So, how do you translate this form of advertising from print to digital and why should you bother?

Let’s answer the second part of that question first. Brevity is necessary for modern marketing, so why bother telling a story? The simple answer is that the quality of an interaction has come to the forefront of digital marketing.

Quality over Quantity

Just the other day, Facebook announced that it was going to change its Facebook Audience Network with the hope to limit the use of ads that encourage accidental clicks. If you’re familiar with SEO, you know that the bounce rate of your website can be an important factor in your Google ranking. Both this announcement from Facebook and the importance of bounce rates are indicators that the major movers in the web world are moving away from spam and towards quality content. So, if your ads aren’t giving people a reason to go to your website and stay there, your ads aren’t doing what you need them to.

This is likely because people have moved away from buying what’s convenient in favor of buying a quality product that they feel connected to. Companies like Huckberry, an online shop specializing in high-quality, stylish adventure gear, have had tremendous success selling their products by combining their online store with stories from people who use (and inspire those who might use) the items that are sold on the site. This association with product and story shows people why they should use these products and creates a connection between the consumer and the product. This encourages the consumer to spend more money on this type of product. This shift is not the only thing that makes connecting with your audience an absolute necessity, though.

With the rise of subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, music and television have moved away from making money from advertisements and toward making it directly from the audience. This severely limits the use of ads and puts emphasis on the quality of the ads that do reach your audience. For example, with YouTube, you have the option to skip certain ads. And people definitely do skip these ads. You probably skip them yourself. People don’t want to sit through an ad, they want to go straight to the content that they’re looking for. So, to make sure that the audience isn’t skipping your ads, you need to make sure you’re grabbing attention and holding it from the beginning until the end, reeling them in fast and working them in gently so distraction can’t take a bite out of their interest. The best way to do this is with good storytelling.

How Do You Tell a Story that People Will See?

The next question to answer is how.  How do you create a story with the limited time that the internet-age brain allows before boredom? This is not as easy a question to answer. This depends on what your business offers and what you’re hoping to get out of your marketing campaign. But the ultimate tool to achieve this is the same as it was when Hemingway’s and Ogilvy’s ads graced the pages of magazines: quality content.

Quality content is produced by quality creators, so you need to make sure that you’re trusting an agency that can create a story that resonates with your audience. The cornerstone of this storytelling is going to be good writing. The copy that goes on your website, in your blogs and in your ads has to be high-caliber, the kind of writing that shows people that they need what you offer instead of telling them why they should want it. This is the first step to creating a story with your digital marketing.

Here are a few ways you can go about doing this:

  1. Find a way to show your audience what you do. For example, you can show people work you’ve done for a client in a blog post or a short video. The story here is your process and the progression of the job from beginning to end. This is satisfying and gives potential customers a direct insight into what you do and how you do it.
  2. Another great way of going about this is showing someone who is not just using your products but experiencing them. Think of Ogilvy’s ad in miniature but in a video format: a man fights a fish, gets it on shore, tries to remove the hook and finds a Zippo lighter which he opens and lights with one quick swipe of the wheel against the flint. That is an ad that could run in a few seconds and keep the interest of the audience all the way through.
  3. Even your slogan or tag line can become a story that will engage your audience. For example, if you have a slogan like “We Do It All”, this is not a story but “We Do It All Because We Care” is. Or “We Do it All Because No One Else Will.” With this simple change, you’ve told your audience what you do but also why you do it, which makes the slogan a story and shows your audience what makes your business different from your competitors.

Storytelling Works

The future of digital marketing rests in storytelling because storytelling has always been an integral part of establishing relationships between people, products and providers. Storytelling works, just like a Zippo lighter from the belly of a fish. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll fix it.


Ed grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from La Salle University in 2015. Ed enjoys collaborating with strong, local brands to create impactful marketing campaigns.

Ed Carr

Copywriter

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