Storytelling Trumps Sex, Celebrities and Humor in TV Commercials

A study of 108 Super Bowl ads from the past two years concludes that the most popular and effective commercials are the ones that make the best use of good storytelling. Plot development and narrative structure, apparently, trump celebrity spokesmodels, computer generated animals, fart jokes, and David Beckham in his underwear.

Freytag's Pyramid
(Jason Seiden’s version of Freytag’s Pyramid.)

Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen at Johns Hopkins predicted that Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” would win the popularity contest among viewers of this year’s Super Bowl, and, according to USA Today’s Ad Meter and Hulu’s AdZone, it was.

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From HBR:

They found that, regardless of the content of the ad, the structure of that content predicted its success. “People are attracted to stories,” Quesenberry tells me, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people. Especially in the Super Bowl, those 30-second ads are almost like mini movies,” he says. Quesenberry found that the ads that told a more complete story using Freytag’s Pyramid — a dramatic structure that can be traced back to Aristotle — were the most popular.

Child Abuse PSA Presents Secret Message for Kids

Or at least a secret message to short people, who in many cases will be kids.

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From Boing Boing.

The Anar Foundation and Grey Spain created a lenticular street-poster about child abuse that shows a “secret” message to people who view it from a kid’s eye-height…. Wait until the grocery stores get hold of it and start loading the pester-power ads at kids’ eye-height.

Very cool. (Except for that last part.)

Ellen Degeneres Goes Native for Samsung

Ellen DeGeneres Oscars Selfie
(Image credit: US Weekly.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, that seeming impromptu photo opp — Ellen’s selfie with friends at the Oscars — was more likely part of Samsung’s $20 million sponsorship package around the awards show. The photo was retweeted three million times in 24 hours.

While the stunt felt spontaneous, it wasn’t entirely unplanned. As part of its sponsorship and ad pact for the Oscars with ABC, the TV network airing the show, Samsung and its media buying firm Starcom MediaVest negotiated to have its Galaxy smartphone integrated into the show, according to two people familiar with the matter. ABC is a unit of Walt Disney Co.

Samsung gave ABC smartphones to use during the broadcast and was promised its devices would get airtime, these people said. At least one of the product plugs was planned: during the “red carpet” preshow, ABC ran a clip of six aspiring young filmmakers touring Disney Studios. The group were seen in the video using Samsung devices.

According to Kontera, which tracked social chatter around the event, only eight percent of comments related to the product placement were negative, including some tweets pointing out that Ellen was also tweeting from her iPhone.

I’m with the 92 percent. Ellen integrated a sponsor in a way that made the show more entertaining. No complaints here.

Stanford’s Future of Media 2014: Stats and Sources

Earlier today I did a talk at Stanford’s Future of Media conference. The infographic notes version looks like this, courtesy of Nick deWild:

Inforgraphic notes by Nick deWild

Here are links to sources for the stats and quotes I cited:

MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman proposes that we measure media attention in units called Kardashians.

NBC’s Jeff Zucker says “we are trading analog dollars for digital dimes.” (More recently he’s upgraded dimes to quarters.)

Google’s Hal Varian on news readership habits by platform is published here and here.

We bought 457 million eBooks in 2012.

Barack Obama is a binge-watcher.

Buzzfeed readers who read that 6000-word article on Detroit real-estate on their phones spent, on average, 25 minutes doing so.

You can read the rest of Caitlin Flanagan’s feature, The Dark Power of Fraternities, here. And Amy Chua’s story, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, here.

Estimates that House of Cards has between two and five million viewers come from here.

People who read the Sunday paper spend, on average, 57 minutes.

Which Format Is Best for Premium Publishing?

I gave a very short presentation today at sfBIG‘s The Big Minute on the topic of reading habits across devices and settings. (If it takes you longer than 80 seconds to read this post, you read slower than I talk!)

The California Sunday Magazine

1 minute
Time we spend reading a newspaper’s website, which we tend to do at work on a laptop.

5 minutes
Time we spend, on average, reading a Buzzfeed list, which we also do mostly at work.

25 minutes
Time spent reading that 6000-word Buzzfeed story about Detroit, if we were among the people who read the story on a phone.

27 minutes
Time we spend reading the newspaper, if we get the print version and read it over breakfast.

57 minutes
Time we spend reading the Sunday print newspaper, since — presumably — breakfast on Sunday lasts longer.

115 minutes
Time we spent tuned-in to the last live issue of Pop-Up Magazine, an evening of “performance journalism” that takes place periodically at Davies Symphony Hall on a week-night after work.

So then, I asked, which publishing form-factor is best if the goal is to maximize reading minutes? Is it the Web, smartphones, printed magazines, or maybe live events performed onstage? How about stone tablets??

Actually: Format doesn’t really matter. The relevant factor, it turns out, is where we do our reading. You’ll get the best results, as a publisher, if you reach a reader outside of work — away from the distractions of email, IM, meetings and, well, work. People engage much more deeply with media when they’re at the breakfast table before work, or at night or during the weekend. If you can reach a person during those windows of leisure time, he or she will give you a whole lot more attention.

(Sources: 1, 27 and 57 come from here; 5 and 25 from here; and 115 from the official time-keeper at Pop-Up Magazine.)

Workplace Attention Spans vs Leisure-Time Reading

New York Times 2013

In The Rise of Curiosity Journalism Ian Bogost explores the odd news that the most-viewed story published online by The New York Times in 2013 wasn’t a story at all; it was an interactive widget that quizzed and then mapped American regional dialects. “It’s certainly startling. But is it really surprising? Perhaps not, once we consider the dominant patterns of online attention.”

Those dominant patterns include the fact that so many of us fill our media diets by following links shared by our friends on Facebook and Twitter, the more “curious” the better. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the story’s timing — it published in the work-free window between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and still landed in the Number One spot among popular NY Times stories for the whole year:

On the one hand, the week of Christmas and New Year’s seems like a terrible time to publish anything; readers are often traveling or visiting with family. But on the other hand, this downtime also offers a great opportunity to play with distractions like a dialect quiz.

Maybe downtime — if that’s the opposite of work time — isn’t just the best time to publish regional-dialect curiosities and listicles. Perhaps all media longer than a Vine requires a the kind of attention we reserve for leisure time.

Take news, for instance. People who still get newspapers tend to read them over breakfast before work, and that kind of news reader spends 27 minutes with the paper. When we read news on our laptops — a context where news is competing with work activities like email, instant messaging, and the meeting we’re late for — we spend, on average, only one minute per day with a newspaper website. On Sunday, the most downtime day of the week, readers of print newspapers spend 57 minutes, more than twice the time they carve out for the weekday paper. (Stats and further insights at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism’s site.)

Hal Varian News Consumption Graph

There’s nothing magical about paper as a format, either. People who read digital news on tablets (instead of on phones or laptops) spend print-like chunks of time with their newspapers. According to Google chief economist Hal Varian (from his September 2013 speech at the E Giornalismo awards ceremony in Italy):

If you look at the time-of-day pattern of online news readership across devices you see that searches for news are concentrated during the working day. On mobile phones, news reading is spread out across the day. Tablet use, on the other hand. peaks in the morning and evening hours. This is because tablets, unlike phones and computers, are primary used for leisure-time reading.

And phone reading isn’t just for short-form workday snacking anymore either. A recent viral hit at Buzzfeed, a 6000-word piece called Why I Bought a House in Detriot for $500, got phone readers to spend more than 25 minutes reading it, which was twice the time spent reading by its tablet readers.

Maybe the crisis of modern publishing isn’t that we just can’t pay attention any more (although some sources say our attention spans have shrunk by fifty percent in the past decade), or that bits are inherently less monetize-able than atoms. Maybe it’s simply that we push our wonderful, engaging media out to consumers in the wrong context, when bosses and workplace distractions prevent them from giving us the time of day.

Bedtime Branded Content

Branded Content Cartoon

From Tom Fishburne at Marketoonist. He posted the cartoon back in September as commentary on Advertising Week, but I just spotted it now. (Thanks, Glasgow!) From his post:

It’s true that content marketing holds great promise, as marketers start to create communication that is genuinely worth sharing. Yet, in creating content, we should remember that consumers don’t necessarily want “content.” They want stories. “Branded content” and “content marketing” is insider terminology used by marketers. It’s up to marketers to make the content into something more meaningful.

In the branded content bandwagon, there is too often an emphasis on quantity over quality. Content is treated like a commodity. Consumers can see many forms of “branded content” a mile a way, and it’s only a matter of time before they learn to tune it out as readily as other forms of advertising.

What could I possibly add to that?!

Print Magazines More Dangerous Than Ever

Everybody knows print is dead, but we often overlook just how hazardous the format can be for the rest of us. The new weekend magazine from The Guardian and Observer is being called “dangerously great” by Adweek. In its latest ad, The Guardian recommends readers consume its newest print product only in moderation. Here’s what happens to one fictional reader who fails to heed that advice.

Refreshing Candor in 1960s Magazine Ads

Mechanix Illustrated

An office mate of mine showed me some old copies of magazines he picked up at a garage sale, including this May 1960 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. With features on how to assemble your own trailer and build your own amazing jet boat, and a behind-the-scenes profile of gunpowder-powered projectiles (the one-handed shotguns used by the Santa Monica police), it’s the Make Magazine of its era.

Charles Atlas

I was delighted to spot this ad for the Charles Atlas exercise book, and its promise to convert readers into He-Men. (I had never seen the actual ad before, but I knew of its existence from my grandfather’s old joke in which he claims to have sent the following letter, six weeks after ordering the book: “Dear Mr Atlas. Thank you for the book. I read the whole thing, now please send the muscles.”)

Chevy Corvair

My favorite thing about the ads in general, though is that — unlike so many viral and (bad) native campaigns you see today — these vintage ads aren’t afraid to be ads. They show a pride in their company’s products and they couldn’t be more transparent in their salesmanship. “Replace those old [spark] plugs with new full-firing Champions.” “Dollar for dollar, drill for drill — now is the time to buy” a Black and Decker drill. “The man to see is your Chevrolet dealer — and there’s no better time than now.” I don’t know how many cars or drills or spark plugs these ads would sell to the ad-fatigued consumers of 2013, but at least they’re not playing deceptive games with typeface to fool us into looking.

Kevin Spacey on Creativity and Storytelling

It’s 47 minutes long, but make the investment. It’s a tribute to creative pathfinders and an object lesson for business people in media. One thing both groups can agree on, he says, is that the long run will reward the risk-takers. Tell great stories really really well, and audiences won’t just watch you — they’ll carry you on the bus and take you to the hairdressers. How can anyone argue that our attention spans have shrunk to the size of tweet when we now watch 13-hour TV seasons in a day?