A few years ago, researchers at Johns Hopkins University examined Super Bowl ads to see who was getting the best bang for their buck. A Super Bowl ad on CBS costs $166,666 per second. That’s $10 million per minute.
The Super Bowl is one of the few occasions when TV audiences are actually happy to watch the commercials. Because the ads are so expensive, advertisers put a lot of effort into making them great. So whereas we skip commercials during the rest of the year, we’ll run back from the kitchen with a mouthful of potato chips to catch Super Bowl commercials.
Of course, not all Super Bowl ads are great. The Hopkins researchers wanted to know what made the biggest difference between a Super Bowl ad people loved and one they didn’t. They took several years of commercials and catalogued them by various factors: humor, length, sexiness, subject matter, use of cute animals, and other elements. Then they looked at which ads were most popular to see which of these factors mattered the most.
What they found was surprising. It turns out that neither jokes nor cute animals nor sexy ladies made a Super Bowl ad popular. The best ads were the ones that had strong narrative arcs.
In other words, the best ads were great stories.
But let’s not underestimate the cute animals, since they play a big part in how much storytelling is upending advertising.
It Sounds Like a Revolution
In 2014, BuzzFeed was in the midst of launching a new kind of advertising agency. Two years earlier, the company hired Ze Frank—one of the internet’s most successful early video creators—to launch BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, a studio that would create original video for the digital media startup and its advertisers.
Most advertising videos shops follow an age-old model: They sell a flashy idea for an ad spot to a client, invest a huge budget to produce the spot, and buy media to support it. The entire exercise is an educated act of faith.
BuzzFeed and Frank, however, wanted to do things differently. Since BuzzFeed’s beginnings in November 2006, founder Jonah Peretti had been obsessed with the science of how content spreads online. BuzzFeed constantly tinkered with how they created and distributed content, making slight adjustments to headlines, story structure, and content strategy. This allowed them to skyrocket to more than 150 million readers, surpassing the digital reach of major legacy publishers like the New York Times.
BuzzFeed never ran banner ads. Rather, it created content on behalf of advertisers and doubled down on original videos as its primary advertising offering.
When Purina came to BuzzFeed in 2014 to run an advertising campaign, Frank didn’t pitch them on a big spot. Instead, Frank proposed to create a series of short videos. The two companies agreed to make a set number of videos and test to see which one resonated with BuzzFeed’s audience. The idea was to test a bunch of different storytelling approaches against a broader theme until they found a hit, just like BuzzFeed had always done with its non-advertising stories.
In a Fast Company profile, former BuzzFeed CMO Greg Cooper recalled showing a two-minute comic video they created to a Purina executive. The exec audibly gasped when he saw it, surprised by how different the video was from a traditional ad spot.
The video showed an older cat schooling a new kitten in the ways of the world, explaining the strange behavior of their humans and the best spots in the apartment to hang out. (“On special occasions, they will leave the underwear drawer open to signal their appreciation . . . of me,” the older cat tells the kitten. “To be clear it’s my spot. It’s perfect in there. It’s like sleeping in underwear. Well . . . that’s exactly what it is.”)
The video, entitled Dear Kitten, would become one of the most famous pieces of social advertising to date, generating more than 29 million YouTube views. (Its sequels have racked up more than 40 million additional views.) But the most interesting thing about it is how it was developed: through a rigorous series of trial and error tests. The first four videos BuzzFeed made for Purina flopped. It took a half-dozen videos before they developed a hit.
“It sounds like a revolution,” Cooper said during a SXSW keynote. “Large corporations don’t like revolutions. They like predictability. They like incremental growth.”
But those corporations are quickly changing their tune. They’re realizing that the most effective way to find a hit is to strategically create content, test how it’ll connect with audiences, and then optimize the approach based on what they learned. Because if you’re going to spend millions to put your story in front of people, you better make sure it’s a story they’re going to love.
This is an excerpt from The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming Into the Void, and Make People Love You” by Contently’s Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow. Get it today.