Why Did I Start
That Beer
About a Puppy
and a Horse?

By: Stephanie Walton

There is quite a bit that can be said about the negatives of the advertising industry. And people are definitely saying it. I must confess that I am continuously surprised at these negative reactions, the anger at feeling manipulated, all the while devoting a significant amount of public discourse to Super Bowl commercials and Mad Men.

I started to write a post that would unpack these negatives and reveal the dirty underbelly of the industry. But I changed my mind. Instead, I want to talk about why I think the advertising industry is so amazing and inspiring. I’m also going to explain why I (and admit it, you did too) started crying during that Budweiser commercial with the puppy and the horse.

Advertising and the Art of Storytelling

At it’s heart, advertising is storytelling. In it’s best form, it helps a business tell their story to the public in a way that is mutually beneficial for both parties. It also helps a business learn how to tell the best story about themselves (which not every business knows how to do instinctively.)

Let’s take as an example the incredibly popular Budweiser spot from the Super Bowl, “Puppy Love.”

Classic narrative. Puppy meets Horse. Puppy and Horse become best buds. Puppy keeps sneaking away to see Horse. Puppy and Horse are separated. Horse chases after Puppy. Puppy and Horse are reunited.

What does this have to do with beer? Don’t overthink it. But the story Budweiser is telling is that even improbable friendships can be deep and everlasting. And who doesn’t just love that? (If you want a major brain melt, watch it again from the perspective of us=puppy and Jesus=horse. It goes deep.)

Stories are powerful, even ones that aren’t allegories of redemption. James K.A. Smith discusses the power of stories to shape our desires and self-understanding in Desiring the Kingdom.

“The telos to which our love is aimed is not a list of ideas or propositions or doctrines; it is not a list of abstract, disembodied concepts or values…. A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well. This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories….”

Smith then unpacks how our instinctual response to stories is reflected in the reading of Scripture in church.

“The Scriptures function as the script of the worshiping community, the story that narrates the identity of the people of God…. We are essentially story-telling animals not because we just love a good yarn, or because we enjoy being entertained, but rather because we think narratively, as it were….we imbibe and absorb these stories without them necessarily being explicitly articulated as such. An entire narrative can be operative in and behind a thirty-second spot for either a new Volkswagen or Army recruitment.”

Stories shape us as people and as a culture. No one can deny the impact the story of Scripture has on the life of a Christian or that The Great Gatsby had on American culture. Advertising can be equally as impactful in shaping our culture.

Here are a few more examples of commercials that do an incredible job of telling a powerful story. These are all incredibly popular spots from the past few months. I would argue they are popular precisely because of the great stories they tell.

Thai Phone Commercial

Radio Shack

Chipotle Scarecrow

These stories are why I love this industry so much. I’m amazed by their power to illicit a response from us, be it laughter or tears, in a matter of minutes. I’m amazed by the strategists who helps companies discover their story. I’m amazed by the art directors who visualize it so beautifully. I’m amazed by the technologists who tell the story in a revolutionary way. I’m amazed by the media buyers who make sure people see the story. I’m amazed by the analysts who gauge the response to the story. When done well, they can tell us quite a bit about who we are and the culture we live in.

Because people respond so strongly to stories and they become so embedded in our understanding of our role in culture and time, the question becomes not, “Should advertising exist?” but “What story should advertising tell?” That is where Christians in the industry need to step in (or lean in, if you love Sheryl) and start shaping the story in such a way that reflects what we know leads to true human flourishing.

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