Storytelling Lessons from the Super Bowl

Storytelling played a big role in the the 2015 Super Bowl ads. The Public Speaker explains which ads used storytelling and effectively and which one missed the mark.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #283

If the 2015 Super Bowl ads had a common theme, it would be: Connect with your audience by telling a story.

I’ve been podcasting about the effectiveness of storytelling for years. It’s one of the best ways to make a lasting impression.

Let’s look at two ads that tell the story of a puppy. One was voted the best ad of the year; the other was pulled before it ran due to social media backlash.


Super Bowl Ad #1: A Puppy Story

The Budweiser “Lost Dog” ad is storytelling at its best. It’s nearly impossible not to connect emotionally with the puppy, his owner, and the Clydesdale horses.

According to USA Today’s Ad Meter rankings, the Budweiser “Lost Dog” ad was the most popular ad of the 2015 Super Bowl. It tells the story of a puppy who gets separated from his family and his harrowing journey to get back to them. The background music is an emotional version of the song “I Would Walk 500 Miles.”

“'It was a heart-tugger,' says Ad Meter panelist Kelly VonDrehle. 'I have my own little dog, and seeing the Clydesdales save that sweet, precious little angel brought a slight tear to my eye'."

This is exactly the kind of connection with the audience good stories create. When you tell a strong emotional story, your audience responds in a different way.  Each person creates a second personal movie in their head, one that features themselves as the leading characters. As audience members we become connected and absorbed into the story.  Is this persuasive?  Yes, absolutely.  In fact, researchers Melanie Green and Tim Brock suggest that when we are moved emotionally by a story, we drop our intellectual guard—we are less critical or skeptical of ideas. 

In a nutshell, that is the power of story

However, viewed in this way, the story becomes a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. For some it’s just a trick for sneaking their message into the listener’s mind. And as with anything powerful, there also comes responsibility.

Like Spiderman, you can use the power of story for good or ill.  

Super Bowl Ad #2: Not a Puppy Story

The second example we're going to look at is another lost puppy commercial. This one is from the web hosting company Go Daddy, which was intended as a parody of the Budweiser commercial. In this ad, when the dog returns his owner says, “Buddy, I’m so glad you’re back! Because I just sold you online on my new website.”

Can't you almost hear the record scratch?

Yes, I understand it was an attempt at humor, but it missed the mark. Go Daddy pulled the ad before the Super Bowl after social media told them loudly and clearly that this parody crossed the line. Animal lovers everywhere expressed outrage at the message the commercial conveyed. Go Daddy CEO Blake Irving admitted: “...What should have been a fun and funny ad clearly missed the mark and we will not air it."

What Are the Elements of a Great Story?

So what can we learn?  Here are 3 important elements of effective storytelling:

  1. Use an example people can relate to. The Lost Puppy ad from Budweiser and many of the ads about fathers all hit the mark. Why? Because the majority of the audience watching could easily imagine themselves (or someone close to them) in the story.

  2. Make it emotional. Emotions are at our core – shared emotion creates strong connection. Commercials can amp up the emotional factor with savvy use of music. We all relate to music emotionally, which means it engages and strengthens the feelings evoked by the ad. The Nissan commercial about the racecar driver father used the very famous Harry Chapin song "Cat’s in the Cradle" to add a strong emotional element to their story.

  3. Use humor the right way (or at least be sure to test your stories to see that they resonate the way you intended). Did you see the Doritos ad about the boy who figures out how to make pigs fly? It’s a great example of an effective use of humor.

Storytelling and humor are both excellent devices to engage with your customers emotionally. But they only work when they create a positive connection.

For more tips on effective storytelling, check out quickanddirtytips.com/public-speaker. Connect with the Public Speaker on Facebook and Twitter.


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About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.