What Can TV Commercials Teach You About Nonprofit Storytelling?

You can learn a lot about compelling storytelling from TV commercials. They must grab your attention immediately or risk you changing the channel. They have to create a powerful emotional response in a very short amount of time. And finally, they need to convey a clear and actionable message at the same time.

Here are some things you can learn about storytelling from TV commercials.

Get To The Point…Or Not

Some of the most compelling commercials don’t give away their message until the very end. The result is that we are left wondering, what is going to happen, what’s the point, what is the takeaway?

This only works, however, if there is a strong reason to watch the ad as it goes along. This ad does a great job of showing how to hook and keep viewer interest:

The main character is acting suspicious, and the music tells us something is up, and when he starts spray painting walls, we know he is up to no good. But, we never see what he is working on. We know it’s a commercial, so we’re wondering what the story is about.

When we see he’s been out all night, we start to understand that he’s been up to something more than just graffiti and we want to see what all this sneaking around has been about. But the video keeps us waiting until the very last second to see what he’s made. Everyone else in the story sees it first, and we see their reactions. We are dying to find out what they see, so you can bet we’re not changing the channel until we do.

This ad about the Powerball Lotto, is a bit more direct.

It clearly indicates from the very beginning that winning the lottery can be life changing enough for a dog to carry a winning ticket across the world. But the ad’s power isn’t in its ability to keep us wondering what the ad is about. Instead, it makes us wonder what will happen at the end, and that is how it keeps viewer interest.

Don’t Give Away The Ending

In the lotto commercial, we become emotionally attached to the outcome of the dog’s quest. We want him to find his owner, to have his loyalty rewarded. We spend the entire commercial watching the dog face challenges and obstacles and so we’re just waiting for him to get back to his owner.

When he actually does, the twist is emotionally jarring because we got attached to the dog’s quest, and of course we didn’t see it coming at all. It wasn’t at all what we wanted, and the dog’s response is funny rather than shameful because we side with the dog and see how loyal he is compared to his human.

Another commercial that achieves the same effect in much less time is this one from Pepsi (though you wouldn’t know it until the end).

We see a boy buy a Coke. No big deal. But then he puts it on the ground, so we’re wondering what’s going on. Then he buys another one and does the same thing. When he uses the cans to reach a Pepsi, we get the joke and, more importantly, the message that people love Pepsi more than they love Coke.

They could have just shown the boy buying a Pepsi, or even eyeing the button for a Pepsi at the beginning. But they don’t. All we see is that he looks up longingly before buying two Cokes, so we don’t know what the end will be.

Be Uplifting

Dry or even dark humor is fine when your message is a product, but when the topic becomes more serious as in the Pfizer commercial at the top or many causes nonprofits champion, it’s best to stay uplifting, to paint your viewer as a potential hero.

This life insurance ad from Thailand does a great job of inspiring its viewers to believe that their life can make a huge difference in the world (and thus is worth insuring).

P&G’s “Thank You Mom” ads that we covered in our online guide “How to Tell Stories that Connect, Move, and Inspire Everyone” is another great example of this principle. They all make the intended audience out to be a hero.

Tell A Story

It’s important to keep in mind that all of these ads tell a story. We start with one emotional state and we end with another. The Lotto Dog starts with loyalty and determination, goes through all the ups and downs of his global travels, and ends with extreme letdown and finally, a cheeky empowering selfishness.

The Pfizer commercial begins with a sense of desperation, very similar to what a sick patient might feel (though importantly, the ad doesn’t attach that desperation to an actual patient), and ends with a sense of redemption and hope.

The Thai life insurance commercial begins with doubt about the justification for the main character’s plucky optimism, moves through the challenge of maintaining that in the face of life’s realities and others’ judgements, and ends with validation of the hope he’s maintained.

Even the Pepsi commercial tells a story about a boy who wants a Pepsi but is too short to reach the button, and his clever method of acquiring it.

Commercials are limited in their time, so they must condense all the elements of a good story into a tiny frame:

  1. Introduce your character.
  2. Set obstacles in their way.
  3. Show them struggle to overcome those obstacles.
  4. Show them attaining their goal…or not.
  5. Through it all, create an emotional arc from one emotional state to another.

After that, your message almost doesn’t matter, but ideally you want to associate your nonprofit with the solution to the character’s problem.


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