Storytelling is a Vital Piece of the Ad Puzzle


Everyone loves a good story, which is why telling a captivating one in your ads isn’t just a necessity: it’s a requirement.

Since the very beginning of television, advertisers have been using stories to sell their products to nationwide audiences. And I mean that quite literally.

Where else do you think the idea for TV shows came from in the first place?

Call it an untold truth (or dirty little secret) of an industry run by creative types, but advertising invented televised entertainment, and not the other way around.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the advertising arms of major corporations were the driving force behind the earliest forms of TV shows. These advertisers knew that if they wanted to get people hooked on their products, they needed to deliver a story. And that’s exactly what they did–just maybe not in the way we think about brand’s delivering stories today.

Taking a feather from the cap of radio programs, major corporations produced serialized television entertainment specifically to support their ad campaigns. More often than not, these TV shows were even named after their brand, like The Motorola Television Hour, Kraft Theater, The Philip Morris Playhouse, General Electric Theater, Campbell Summer Soundstage (of tomato soup fame), and seriously the list goes on and on.

The stories these advertisers were selling weren’t your serialized dramas and comedies like we expect from modern TV. Early television was all about the anthology series–a format that’s surged in popularity over the last decade–featuring a new story and cast of characters every week. In the process of pushing their products, these brands invariably introduced the world to some of the most wickedly talented storytellers of the twentieth century, from Rod Serling and Sidney Lumet, to John Frankenheimer, and Paddy Chayefsky.

The Birth of TV Ads

These early forms of TV shows were typically broadcast live. And during the teleplay’s act breaks, the businesses sponsoring the program would insert their primitive primetime commercials. Sometimes these were just merely interstitials featuring a static image of the product as the show’s narrator provides the description. Other times these commercials used unique storytelling quirks that would be familiar in modern ads–like how-to recipe videos.

Take for example an ad shown on Kraft Theater, the program sponsored by everyone’s favorite maestro of boxed Mac and Cheese. In the episode featuring Rod Serling’s teleplay Patterns, each ad break features a new recipe that viewers at home can make from Kraft’s line of food products. As they visually show you how simple it is to make the recipe, they also layer in the benefits their easy-to-make dinners will bring to families at home, establishing the spirit of storytelling through the preparation of a meal.

The birth of television advertising is also the birth of advertising as a storytelling medium. Almost 80 years later, it’s only become more creative–and complex–as our own definition of what a story can look like has evolved.

To put it more simply, storytelling isn’t just a vital piece of the advertising puzzle: it’s the whole damn thing.

Thinking Outside the Storybook

Let’s get some basics out of the way so we can say that we covered the basics.

Storytelling video ads–from glitzy big-budget commercials to bitesize direct response spots–communicate the value your product offers to consumers through a narrative arc. Sometimes that can be strictly product-focused, using a simple story to highlight the unique benefits of your product while driving home a compelling Call-to-Action to spur consumers down the path to purchase.

But increasingly commercials have begun to look like–as MNTN’s Chief Creative Officer Ryan Reynolds described it–mini-movies. Brands and advertisers are bringing big picture ideas to the small screen in truly exciting ways. It’s reinvigorated what kinds of stories–from humorous to horrifying–we want to tell to sell a product.

This pull towards more robust storytelling has crystallized something in the industry. Ads stand the test of time when they deliver a story that makes audiences feel something–be it joy or sorrow–through a fictional narrative or by detailing real life events. Human psychology craves storytelling and by using a narrative, audiences are also able to better retain messages than if they were seeing a run-of-the-mill product spotlight video.

But before we dive into key concepts that’ll help you develop a great story for your next ad, I’ve got to dispel a quick misconception that you may already have noodlin’ in your noggin.

You Don’t Have to Be a Storyteller to Tell a Good Story

The word storytelling conjures images of dusty volumes of classic literature, but your ad’s story doesn’t need to be as complex as your least favorite book in high school English class. You’re not in the writer’s room for Stranger Things. You don’t need to chart a time-hopping journey like Pachinko. As much as modern ads are trying to mimic the storytelling styles of their big-screen counterparts, your starting point should not be “how do I make this look like something I’d actually choose to watch?” It should be: “how do I showcase my product in the most compelling way?”

Spoiler alert: the most compelling way is through a narrative.

Remember how human psychology craves storytelling? Well, with a clear narrative arc, you have a surefire tool to sate their appetites and make a memorable, lasting impression.

That being said, your narrative doesn’t have to be a stereotypical story either; it could be a video that simply teaches your audience something new, like a how-to video that takes your audience down a path of education and discovery.

Start by establishing a simple beginning, middle, and end to your ad. The beginning could be a question to the audience, with the middle explaining how your product solves the problem. Your ending could then be a simple visual depiction of the problem being solved. As important as it is to grab attention early, you need to make sure your ad creative is following through and delivering a payoff. Chart a narrative arc that takes your audience on a journey–emotional, spiritual, financial, or otherwise–for every single video ad you create. If you’re hesitant to make a bold choice, start small and scale up your big picture story ideas from there.

For an example, consider this 30-second TV commercial for a flight booking website. The client maximized their production budget by filming actors in front of a green screen, but they still tell an effective story through the dynamic actions and words spoken by the talent. The subject matter aims to be relatable to viewers who can’t always afford to take trips.

As you can see, storytelling in ads doesn’t need to be complex. With a simple narrative that hooks your audience, you can bake value props into your ad creative without audiences immediately catching on that they are being delivered a commercial. You may not feel like Toni Morrison, but hey at least you’re not a reality TV writer trying to manufacture a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship for two randos on Love is Blind.

Three Key Concepts for Producing Compelling Narratives

With an engaging story, you can lead your audience anywhere, and they’ll follow. To craft a compelling narrative arc you’ll need to deliver on three key concepts.

Investment in Characters

Get your audience on your characters’ side–whether it be a fictional person or a real life customer–and make sure their goals are clear and bold. They need to be appealing enough for audiences to root for them to achieve their goals.

Interesting Obstacles

The obstacles in your characters’ paths inform the stakes and tension of the story. The quality of the challenges will dictate how much audiences are engaged in your characters because they get to show how resourceful and layered they are.

Exciting Conclusion

Start strong, and end even stronger to leave a lasting impression. Even if the ending’s a foregone conclusion — or looking at it another way, the obvious point of the ad — you can still make it affecting, moving, and even surprising with a captivating finale.

How Data Can Dictate Story

If you’re strapped for bandwidth, running over-schedule, and need to remember one thing about storytelling in advertising, it’s this: story is all about emotion. Find a strong one, and go for it.

In fact, strong emotions are directly correlated with increased ad performance. A study conducted by MNTN and QuickFrame concluded that fear and joy both drive higher performances in disparate ways. When comparing the emotions fear, joy, and sadness, fear-based messaging was found to drive site visit rates 49% higher than average, while joy delivered a 7% higher conversion rate.

This report can also clue you in on other areas of storytelling that’ll help you carefully narrow the focus of your narrative.

That same MNTN/QF study found that having six or more talent on screen in 15- and 30-second ads led to higher overall conversion rates. If at the onset of your campaign, you know CVRs are a major campaign KPI, concept commercials that can leverage a large cast of characters. Especially for marketers who don’t think of themselves as creatively driven, give yourself the permission to lean into data to help you work smarter and not harder.


If you want to capture consumer attention with an evergreen trend that’s only continuing to explode in popularity, then your ads need to tell a story. Why else do you think Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok all have some permutation of a Stories feature? It’s because now more than ever we’re hungry for stories that allow us to escape, be it in a 120-minute R-rated superhero flick or a 15-second ad break once that superhero flick finds its way to FXX.

The popularity of these experiences is proof-positive of the insatiable appetite consumers have for storytelling today–one that’ll only get hungrier and hungrier as storytelling in ads become bolder, more creative, and wildly more effective.

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