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Aesop Storytelling Series - Episode 4: How to infiltrate the Pentagon

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Before special effects got good, if you wanted to film a dogfight between two-dozen F-14 Tomcats, you actually needed to get ahold of approximately two-dozen F-14 Tomcats.

That’s where the Pentagon usually came in. By the time the makers of Top Gun rocked up, the Pentagon had been quietly bankrolling war films for more than sixty years. There was a catch though. The films had to serve the US military’s interest. So, no Deerhunter basically.

When the folks at the Pentagon first read the Top Gun script, they loved it – square-jawed aviators pushing jets to the edge of the envelope. That was until the film’s creators made some changes. They knew that the script lacked a certain something, so the first thing they did was change the protagonist’s name to Maverick. And then they made Maverick do, well, what mavericks do.

Back came a terse note from the Pentagon - unacceptable transgressions:

Provocation of the enemy. Flying dangerously low. Breaking the rules of engagement. Reprehensible off-base behavior. Sexual liaison with a fellow officer. Unbefitting language. Homoerotic imagery. Disobeying orders. Reckless flight maneuvers, resulting in criminal fatality.

The Pentagon were having none of it. They wanted a 90-minute recruitment ad. Not any of this shit.

It was the assistant who found a way in: “If you want a recruitment poster of a film, you’ve got to embrace the conflict, the jeopardy, even the maverick behaviour. Especially the maverick behaviour.”

In the end, both parties got what they wanted.

The producers paid the military a mere $1.8m for the use of Miramar Naval Air Station, a couple of aircraft carriers, and those two dozen F-14 Tomcats, some flown by real-life Top Gun pilots. Top Gun grossed $356 million against a production budget of only $15 million.

The US Navy stationed recruitment desks outside cinemas across the country, taking advantage of young men and women who, all of a sudden, felt the need… the need for speed. In a year, the number of military recruits increased by 20,000 – 16,000 of which applied to the Navy.

A lot has changed since Top Gun was in cinemas. In fact, our relationship with the media we consume has transformed completely. Right now, I can watch Top Gun whenever and wherever I want, and the same goes for everything else. We are in control of our consumption like never before. Which means it really gets our goat when our merry consumption is interrupted. Interrupted by, you guessed it, advertising. In fact it gets people down so much they created a fly-swatting button for it: Skip Ad.

This posed marketers with a conundrum: keep interrupting people’s lives with advertising, or create stuff people actually wanted to consume. The answer was evident: content marketing. And that’s where storytelling comes in. People thought by brushing up on our storytelling skills, we’d be better at making the stuff people wanted to engage with. It all seemed so simple. So simple, in fact, it’s not really to be trusted.

Everyone likes a good story, everybody uses the term ‘brand storytelling, but not everyone sees it for what it is.

‘Brand storytelling’ has become the most abused term since ‘I’ll pay you back’. Some see it as one and the same with content marketing – but not all brand storytelling is content, and lots of supposed storytelling content doesn’t tell a story. Take listicles, ‘how to’ guides, or recipes: all perfectly good examples of content where no story is required. In addition, you can’t assume that people will readily watch what is merely advertising posing as content. Putting an ad on YouTube a piece of content doth not make.

So, what makes something a story? Let me refer you to Kurt Vonnegut, who knew a thing or two about stories. In a lecture (and a rejected Masters thesis), Kurt sketched out on a graph – with a few jokes thrown in – the essential shape of pretty much any story, Man in Hole. Sometimes the hero’s fortunes are up, and the line swoops upwards on the graph. These are the triumphs and fun times in the story – Cinderella’s ball, or Dorothy’s switch into Technicolour. But then other times, more importantly, the line swoops down. These are the bad days, the murders, the break-ups, the conflict – the stroke of midnight, the Wicked Witch, the entire plot of Hamlet.

The heart of any good story, as the makers of Top Gun knew, is conflict.

Even the most seemingly innocuous of stories would be nothing without conflict. Take any of those harmless Sunday night TV shows, like The Great Pottery Throw Down. No conflict there, surely. But you’d be wrong – The Great Pottery Throw Down is in fact rife with conflict from beginning to end. It follows a classic narrative structure: the contestants are heroes, the challenges are well, challenges, and the fate of some clay pots (will they look nice, will they break?) acquires colossal significance. So much so it reduces the presenter to real tears every episode.

Okay, conflict is fine in fiction, but what about when it comes to marketing? Wouldn’t fickle-hearted consumers balk at the thought of their beloved brands erring into… the dark side? After all, no one ever wrote a marketing objective that read to strike fear into the hearts of our consumers by Q3.

It may surprise you, but just like that ex you can’t stop thinking about, some of the best campaigns of recent years have a heart of darkness. Take Ariel India’s plea for men to ‘share the load’ when it comes to housework, standing against unjust traditional gender roles. Or Adidas, in an ad I can only describe as ‘dank’, who highlight the inner conflict that being original is tough (but sort of sexy and weird). Conflict doesn’t even have to be dark, the tension at the heart of MailChimp’s amusing campaign was that apparently no one could get their name right.

Think about it: without conflict, Jaws would be a day at the seaside, Kafka’s Metamorphosis would be A Bugs Life, and Top Gun would just be Tom Cruise dicking about on a naval base.

Now, the only thing left to do is unleash the conflict at the heart of your brand. Pick a fight. Voice a doubt. Set a challenge. Be a daredevil. Because when it comes to brand storytelling, you need to embrace the dark side to live happily ever after.

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