Thursday, February 05, 2009

Bringing People Back In: Advertising, Technology, and the Personal Story

Everyone loves a good personal story, especially if it has elements that ring true and speak to common interests, human pathos, and the usual triumph over adversity. Advertisers know this, but they often consider their own imaginations as the prime source for good stories. That’s like a novelist who locks herself in a room, endlessly mining her own biography well past the first few novels. Enough already, we think.

Rather than chase their own tails in search of a storyline fit for an ad campaign, advertisers are beginning to put two and two together: the first part is knowing how to find human drama in real life experience and the second is giving consumers and citizens a sense of control over how they present themselves, how they interact with products and technology. The best of these are integrated marketing campaigns that include posting to websites, print and media ads, and social media.

Here are some examples of what I mean: the old version is the “personal testimony” –you know these ads ("how I lost 145 pounds eating turkey subs…") But more significant are the ones where the ad – or the site where the ad is generating attention – is not as intensely focused on the product alone.

The now-classic version of this is Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which began in 2004 as a straight media format, but showed ordinary women celebrating the diversity of body types. Women posted stories and sent in photos; Dove’s site included space for commentary and has morphed into an activist campaign to help women of different ages develop self esteem and respond to unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies in the media.

A less successful version was Microsoft’s Life Without Walls campaign (“I’m a PC… and I’ve been turned into a stereotype” featuring a John Hodgeman-like spokesperson who then gives over to vignettes of many different people using their pc…) which had potential but felt scripted too closely to its competition and also gave in to rumors that many of the spots on the commercial were created on Macs… The site itself has great stories, but it functions too defensively in favor of the product and less positively in favor of the terrific stories.

For an upcoming example: athletic gear maker Adidas is giving women a chance to star in a new campaign with WNBA basketball player Candace Parker. According to recent news,

The company is hosting an enter-to-win promotion, starting today, in which women can share stories about training struggles and successes. Three entrants whose stories are chosen will star in the ads. Throughout February, consumers are invited to become the new face of the "Me, Myself" campaign by uploading their photos and stories to They can invite friends and family to vote for them via an online widget that can be attached to one's Facebook or other social networking sites.
Another interesting version is Nationwide insurance, which has a version of that’s focused on Black History Month. The centerpiece of the campaign is a site,, where people can post their significant moments of personal achievement within their African-American heritage. The site allows people to share stories, family history, and photos. The company's presence on the site is subtle, which also adds to the imprint of sincerity.

photo credit: "Dad and Four of Five Sons, August 2008" by Jame C.E., Tignall Georgia on the Nationwide "My Legacy" site.

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