Narrative Adverts: right and wrong ways to tell a story

narrative adverts right and wrongDuring frequent recent trips to the cinema, I’ve been inordinately exposed to the San Miguel advert that insists there’s a beer with an interesting story. It’s 29been bothering me for a while, but it didn’t bear dwelling on until I happened to be exposed to Johnnie Walker’s The Man Who Walked Around the World from some six years ago (while at whisky school, if you must know). That video shone a candle on everything that’s wrong with the San Miguel advert, and made me realise how much, between them, the two adverts say about a good narrative.

How long is too long

If you missed Robert Carlyle narrating the story of Johnnie Walker, check it out here. At six minutes long, it’s more a short film than an advert. But with an engaging story, well told, it all feels worthwhile. If you haven’t seen the San Miguel advert, I’m afraid I can’t find a link to it, and am not sure how long it is. Presumably under a minute. But it’s an unengaging story, tackily told, making each viewing seem painfully long.

It’s an illustrative comparison: when you’ve got something interesting to say, and you capture the audience’s attention, it can be as long as you want. When you’ve got something uninteresting to say and you don’t say it well, every additional word seems like too much.

The basis of an interesting story

Given the two adverts, how interesting you find either the story of Johnnie Walker or the story of San Miguel, I dare say, has nothing to do with if you are interested in whisky or beer. It has everything to do with the human elements of those stories, their emotional draws. Johnnie Walker has the story of poor farm boy and his family using hard work, innovation and dedication to their craft to conquer the world, over a period of centuries. San Miguel offer the story of some anonymous sailors moving grain somewhere, or something. It’s not clear who they are, why they do it or what difference it actually made. If this story is so interesting, and they feel the need to explicitly tell you it is, why can’t I remember the details?

The Johnnie Walker advert makes a detail as banal as the angle of the bottle label memorable because it has a reason, it demonstrates ingenuity and creates a competitive advantage for these plucky entrepreneurs. The San Miguel makes an exciting detail about sailors braving storm-swept seas forgettable because we don’t know who they people are or what difference their journey makes.

With its attention to detail, the Johnnie Walker advert gives you something convincing, a brand with a strong sense of history. You learn some of what the Walkers personally did to gain their position as trusted producers and an international business. With its generic details, the San Miguel story makes you wonder if any of it is true. Having gone away to briefly try and look up the true San Miguel story, I still have no idea if San Miguel does have an interesting story. As far as I’m aware, it’s a company that exported beer. And now exports beer further than before. No idea about the people behind it, or how their efforts made this expansion possible. They say someone rode a boat somewhere, but I get the feeling the real business of San Miguel was created by someone consigning shipments from behind a desk.

The production values of these stories, of course, play a part in the final effect. The Johnnie Walker ad is a great example of something done right, by design, which you can read about in detail. The San Miguel ad is an example of something that raises questions about why it was done the way it was (including unnatural dubbing and cheesy theatrics which defeat the point of having everyday people tell a story). But the relative effectiveness of both adverts starts with their writing. One has an interesting story, the other (the one which tells you it has an interesting story) does not. And on the strength of their narratives, one advert blossoms into an example of a small but excellent piece of film-making. The other is vaguely annoying.


Note: an issue for another day, San Miguel have actually done it so much better before, in an advert from 4 years ago. That was an advert that felt authentic and personal…

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