Why Marketers Won't Get Storytelling.

Or marketing, for that matter.


Writing a song is like holding a bird and not killing it. Sometimes you end up with a mouthful of feathers.” Tom Waits

It’s funny how marketing seminars want you to think they’ve solved something that’s already been solved or abandoned. I watched one of their videos the other night about, of all things, storytelling. It’s really content marketing, but if you come to their seminar, they’ll show you how your stories can create an “emotional bond” with your customer.

The reason this gives me such a metaphysical thrill is because it’s nonsense. Marketers aren’t storytellers (or emotional, for that matter). Their idea of a good story is how they raised millions on an IPO, then bought the same shares back a few years later at a reduced price. Good for them, bad for anyone who invested in their company. Most still think They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a pretty romantic film.

One seminar gives the example of Subaru doing commercials about love. Everyone’s in love, even the dog. They’ll tell you Suburu’s sales are going through the roof because everyone can relate to love. Meanwhile Ford is doing the same old running shots. They’re making more than Subaru. Why? Because they discount like crazy, and throw in snow tires, and if you told their dealerships to throw in some “love,” they’d tell you to fuck off.

Send people into their dealerships, expecting love, and they’ll fleece the crap out of them with extras.

Car dealers are around people every day. They’re the front line. Send someone into their dealerships expecting love, and they’ll fleece the crap out of them with extras. They still think The Wolf of Wall Street is a pretty romantic film.

Remember the episode of WKRP where the undertaker (Ferryman) is listening to his jingle “Hey, you’re young and swingin’, no time to think about tomorrow, but there ain’t no use to deny it, one day soon you’re gonna buy it”? Of course we laugh. It’s hysterical. There’s Ferryman bopping up and down, his face as lifeless as Dick Clark’s during American Bandstand’s 50th anniversary.

In its own way, that WKRP episode is offering marketers a sage piece of advice. Nothing — and I mean nothing — has doomed-to-failure written across it like people trying to sell something they’re not.

It’s like saying you went to a funeral and everyone was crying, so you cried, too. That doesn’t make you friends. Neither does storytelling.

I know many marketers will argue this. Aren’t stories more endearing than, say, single-message advertising? They are if you believe them. But we know from experience that most are fabricated emotions. We don’t buy them because it’s like Ferryman. He’s trying too hard to be hip.

Nobody buys Ferryman being hip.

He still thinks Night of the Living Dead is a pretty romantic film.

You can’t fake it, in other words. It’s like saying you went to a funeral and everyone was crying, so you cried, too. That doesn’t make you friends. Neither does storytelling. At best, you can agree on something. It’s not a bonding moment, but it could be a shared one. There’s a difference.

Years ago (1977) a copywriter was assigned to do a commercial about Pioneer’s “sound excellence.” Instead of focusing on the equipment, he told the story of jazz saxophonist, Sonny Rollins. After twelve years in the music business, Rollins decided he wasn’t good enough. So he dropped out, spending his nights playing sax on the Brooklyn Bridge. When he thought he was ready, he returned, drawing massive acclaim.

It’s a brilliant form of storytelling. Without mentioning Pioneer’s sound excellence, we share our appreciation of a great jazz artist. We figure Pioneer understands Rollins’ dedication, so their equipment must be good.

P&G would walk out the door. Ford would throw a hissy fit.

How many clients — or marketers — would spent this amount of time on a story without selling the product? P&G would walk out the door. Ford would throw a hissy fit (I’ve actually seen them throw hissy fits).

Marketers who say “We’ll take it a step at a time,” forget they’ve had years to take these steps. The majority have failed. We’ve seen endless examples of supposedly “emotional” spots.

Back in 2015, Nationwide did a commercial for the Super Bowl around preventable childhood injuries. It featured a boy talking about all the things he wouldn’t be able to do in life because — you guessed it — he died in an accident.

Twist ending, sure, but tasteless. The CMO of Nationwide resigned. The advertising community took note. If you’re looking for emotional shock value, remember, you’ll turn as many people off as you’ll draw tears.

It’s dicey at the best of times. While the lure of “bonding” sounds right, the idea of opening oneself up to criticism makes it too big of a gamble. Marketers aren’t gamblers. That’s the first thing you notice in any boardroom. They also, for some reason, think they’re grammarians.

I do it because being conversational means more to me than grammar. I failed grammar. Strangely, I aced short story writing.

How is grammar related to what I’ve been talking about? Throughout this piece, I’ve used contractions in almost every sentence. I’ve also been guilty in the past of starting sentences with “Because.” I do it because being conversational means more to me than grammar. I failed grammar. Strangely, I aced short story writing.

Throughout the years, I’ve had clients correct my grammar, telling me no contractions — and certainly no compound prepositions — will cross their desks. Who the fuck starts a sentence with “Because?” Well, John Lennon did in a very famous song. Shakespeare made up words, and didn’t give a fuck about grammar, either. Some of our grammar is, in fact, derived from Shakespeare not giving a fuck about grammar.

If you think resigning your CMO position for being tasteless in a commercial is crazy, imagine being compared to a seven-year-old.

Now, what happened when I presented such contractions (and “because”) to the client? One client said I wrote worse than his seven-year-old. If you think resigning your CMO position for doing a tasteless commercial is crazy, imagine being compared to a seven-year-old. Writing is rough. I still think Dead Poet’s Society is a pretty romantic film.

It tells you something about marketers and storytelling, though. Just as they can’t tolerate contractions, they can’t accept humanness. It’s not their world. If anything, it’s too believable. It’s like letting your guard down, showing the blemishes, etc. Nobody in the corporate world wants that. If anything, they’ve fought their entire careers to avoid it.

How, then, can they accept believability? Being believable is an art, not a science, something Bill Bernbach said over and over again. I guess he’d know since his agency did more believable advertising than any other. But there’s no use bringing that up, especially when all you want is to bond.

These marketing seminars call it “connecting,” but you can’t without the words and the emotions that go along with it. You need the contractions and the very awkwardness that shows vulnerability. Yet the marketing video I watched never touched on this. Instead, they talked about information, which isn’t human or even approaching human. You need the blemishes—even the “becauses” and the “ain’ts” that at least make you sound human.

Like I said, that’s a stretch for most marketers. How do you get there without sounding, well, illiterate? It ain’t easy, but it is possible if you actually listen to writing that isn’t trying to sell.

Here’s something — not from a copywriter — but from Tom Waits, who could’ve been a copywriter. These are the lyrics to one of his earlier songs. If the day ever comes when you can capture this in your storytelling, then, sure, you’re likely to bond with your customers. Why? Because it isbelievable.

You might even have people lining up to buy your product.

Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitley, out to my old ’55, as I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy, God knows I was feeling alive, now the sun’s coming up, I’m riding with lady luck, freeways, cars and stuff, lights beginning to fade, and I lead the parade, just a-wishin’ I’d stayed a little longer, Lord don’t you know, the feeling’s gettin’ stronger.”

Robert Cormack is a novelist, satirist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is available through Skyhorse Press. You can read Robert’s other articles and stories at robertcormack.net