What the advertising industry can learn from television's most binge-watched shows

Can we make ad campaigns as binge-worthy as Game of Thrones or as anticipated as Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Ask any digitally-savvy marketer and they’ll tell you the same old “insight”: Audience attention is at an all-time low. Content should be snackable. Commercials must make the most impact in the shortest amount of time.

Yet, conversely, streaming platforms have occupied the other end of digital media. The rise of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video shows us that when it comes to video consumption, there is a huge appetite for 10-course tasting menus.

From The Handmaid’s Tale to Game of Thrones, what makes today’s hottest shows so enticing, so tantalizing and deeply immersive, comes down to five core principles. Here’s how you can apply them to your next ad campaign.

Familiarity and the Myth of Novelty

As an industry, our biggest preconception is that the best work needs to be new and disruptive. “It’s been done before” is the death of the agency brainstorm. But do consumers really care?

In Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson discusses the myth of novelty. “Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic, curious to discover new things, and deeply neophobic, afraid of anything that is too new,” he explains. “The best hit makers create moments of meaning by marrying new and old. They are architects of ‘familiar surprises.’”

We assume audiences want to be constantly surprised, but what they love the most is engaging with familiar stories in new ways. It’s also why every year this century, a majority of the top 10 films in America have been sequels, adaptations, or reboots, Thompson points out.

There is no reason why a successful campaign can’t earn a second season, just like The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ad campaigns are like pilots: they introduce a new idea, a set of characters, and a universe. But then, they move onto the next one, regardless of the ratings. Imagine HBO did that. Nobody loved Game of Thrones after the first episode, yet a study recently named it “the most binge-able show ever.”

Storytelling Through the Hero’s Journey

Ah, storytelling! That old buzzword we pepper diligently in every creative pitch and every new business deck. You'd be hard-pressed to find an agency website that doesn't sprinkle it liberally throughout their case studies. But are we actually applying the rules of storytelling in our ad campaigns?

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the definitive guide to storytelling, Joseph Campbell describes the structure of a narrative arc. Its key moments include the call to adventure for the hero as everyman, the crossing of the first threshold, the road of trials, and ultimately, the return and reintegration with society.

Within these steps, there is everything you need to capture an audience. Every major work of fiction, from literature to film, boils down to a version of the hero’s journey. We fall for it every time, because it’s always the same secret ingredient binding together any narrative: a familiar formula in a new delivery.

In advertising, the brand is the hero. But how frequently are we discussing its journey in our strategy meetings or our brainstorm sessions? We know that brands should have a mission, but from a creative standpoint, we fail to apply the very principles of that mission--a journey with obstacles, enemies and allies--to develop a consistent storyline. And therefore, very few brands really cash in on consumers’ need to follow along.

Some brands literally are about the hero’s journey: think of Elon Musk’s quest to save humanity, or Mark Zuckerberg’ Congress cliffhanger, which got us all waiting for the next “episode” of Facebook. Which brings us to…

Cliffhangers

The way in which TV shows draw in audiences is by ending each episode with a cliffhanger, leaving viewers in suspense. Todd Kessler, the creator of Netflix’s Bloodline, once explained that he likes endings that are "more haunting than conclusive — endings that continue a conversation."

So how are we applying this to TV spots? Is the next Geico commercial going to leave us chewing our nails until the next installment comes out?

Consumers fall for this technique every day in every other media format, so why aren’t we using it to make our ads truly engaging?

Character Development & In-Depth Connection

Today’s top TV series excel in character development: they peel away layers over time to reveal the true essence of their heroes, uncovering new facets as their characters confront new challenges. Advertising has had its share of characters over the years, but how many iconic campaign heroes can you name?

Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World was a decent attempt, but he was no Jon Snow resurrecting from the dead. Old Spice can get a nod as well--remember "I’m on a horse"? But even they decided to move on. What more can creatives and brands do to keep these characters going?

You could argue that ads don’t have the time for character development. But whether it’s a TV commercial, digital video spot, or Instagram branded content, it’s not about the length of just one ad. It’s the frequency, the consistency, and the repetition of the characters that builds familiarity. Over time, that’s what creates an in-depth connection with consumers.

Rhythm and Repetition

Recurring characters and motifs will inspire people to care and become emotionally invested in a storyline. As a viewer, there is something deeply satisfying about having a story to come back to, a narrative to follow, and a hero to support.

Whether it’s Jon Snow or June Osbourne, TV characters become familiar faces, old friends: you’ve seen them go through a lot, and you’ve followed their journey every step of the way. So from an advertising perspective, how are we humanizing brands and allowing consumers to discover both relatable flaws and admirable qualities?

While I don’t expect any ad campaign to dethrone Game of Thrones in popularity, I firmly believe that borrowing some tricks from today’s most binge-watched shows is a worthy idea for advertising creatives to consider.

Mihai Botarel is the co-founder of RXM Creative in New York.

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