Selling with Stories #2: For Sale, Baby Shoes

OR: Why my all-time favourite advert is a story in disguise.

So first up, we ranted about the magnificent, transformative power of story, and how it can tickle parts of the brain that other communications can’t reach.

But as a marketer or a copywriter, how do you actually use this power? For this, we need to establish how stories actually work. Now, stories are usually a damn sight longer than marketing copy. Usually, but not always.

Story in a heartbreaking nutshell

We’ll do the apocryphal version of the shortest story ever written. Ernest Hemingway. Drinker, gambler, and Literary Genius Most Likely To Cut Off Your Ear In A Bar Fight.

 Hemingway wielding a bigass shotgunEat it, Christopher Marlowe.

He’d sit around with his literary buddies, drinking and gambling. And one time, he bet that he could tell a whole story in six words.

And what he came up with wasn’t just a whole story, it was a beautiful, heartbreaking story:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

Six words. And yet it totally conforms to our best definition of what a story is. Story guru Robert McKee (he wrote the TV Series Mrs Columbo, so you best listen to him) describes a story as:

“a structure of three acts, taking us from problem to unexpected solution.”

At bottom, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a narrative force that pulls us from beginning to end. That narrative force is powered by change – something has to be irrevocably changed by the events of the story.

For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn

Despite being shorter than most slogans, the Baby Shoes story fulfills every aspect:

  • The beginning (“For sale”) sets the scene. We’re in a shop window, or the classified ads.
  • The middle (“baby shoes”) piques our interest and expands the world, jamming an unusual item into the mundane setting.
  • It drives us into the end (“never worn”), the “unexpected solution”, where the story is wrapped up, the unusual object is explained, and a stunning emotional punch is delivered. Boom.

My Favourite Advert – A story in disguise

Which bring us to my favourite advert. It’s my favourite advert because I used to smoke. As a smoker, you get bombarded by messages, statistics and warnings, about what the cancersticks are doing to you skin, sex drive and pretty much every vital organ.

And it becomes white noise. You become amazing adept at tuning them out.

When I saw this advert, from the British Columbia Health Board, I thought, this could have got through to me. It might not have made me quit, but Jeez, it would have made me think.

For More Information on Lung Cancer, Keep Smoking

So we’re up to eight words now, but it’s doing exactly the same thing as Hemingway did:

For More Information on Lung Cancer, Keep Smoking

  • The beginning (“For more information”) sets the scene. An admin-y tone, end of a form or small print.
  • The middle (“on lung cancer”) piques our interest and expands the world, jamming an unusual, and horrible item into the mundane setting.
  • It drives us into the “unexpected conclusion” (“keep smoking.”) where the story is wrapped up, the unusual item is explained, and an emotional punch is delivered.

The Copywriter’s Takeaway

This is what story can do for advertising. No image, no gimmickry. Just a story structure and well edited words, and they can bust through all the noise and inspire reaction.

Consider the narrative force when you write copy. What is changed by what you’ve written? Where is the unexpected conclusion? Find that, and your copy will pack a Hemingway punch. Also, try to get a shotgun.

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