The story that's unlike a frog

There's a saying that humor is like a frog: you can dissect it to see how it works, but the thing dies in the process. But I'm happy to say that's actually not true. In this great video, Nerdwriter breaks down how Louis CK tells a joke, and the humor doesn't die in the process.

Humor is the type of storytelling I have the most respect for, because I think it's the hardest to do well while also being the least recognized as taking any skill.

How do you sell the unpleasant or unthinkable?

Remember Superbowl 49, back in 2015? Superbowls are known for their fun, extravagant, over-the-top ads. It's when companies go all out. There was the Budweiser ad with the puppy and the Clydesdales. A sassy ad in which a little blue pill gets lost and ends, enhancing... a Fiat. And then there was the ad for Nationwide Insurance.

Jarring, depressing...people hated it. You're watching the big game with your friends and suddenly there's a dead kid.

This blog is about how storytelling is everywhere. And in this ad, the story is, "The world is full of hidden dangers. Your kid could be killed at any time. Be afraid! And buy insurance."

Nobody enjoys fear-based marketing, especially while eating nachos and cheering their team. But how do you sell safety? Insurance has the problem that it's a boring product and nobody wants to think about it. Insurance is, by its nature, something that you use only when something bad happens.

The Bittersweet

State Farm tackled a similar message in a much better way with their "Never" commercial. For one thing, they don't beat you over the head with it; you realize what the ad is saying as it fades out. For another, they use humor.

The result is a bittersweet tone. It's a commercial that makes you go "awww" instead of "argh!"

The story here is, "Certain things are inevitable in life. Someday you will wear dad jeans. And someday you will die. But it's okay; we're here to help."

The Funny

Then there's the flat-out humorous approach. For example, the Allstate "mayhem" commercials with Dean Winters personifying Mayhem in over-the-top scenarios. Allstate switched to these after a series of shocking commercials with car accidents coming out of nowhere, narrated by Dennis Haysbert.

Oddly enough, the basic story with Mayhem is similar to Nationwide: "Dangers lurk everywhere. You never know what terrible thing could happen to your car or your house." But Allstate didn't take it as far; it's the car or the house that's in danger, not your child. And Dean Winters as "a hot chick out jogging" in his pink headband makes it funny.

Spokescharacters are popular. Progressive has Flo, the helpful agent who wants to save you money. Nationwide used to have a spokescharacter, the catsuit-wearing Jana Kramer. She appeared in commercials in 2013 and 2014 as an anti-burglar, who stealthily replaced stolen belongings. Maybe they can't afford Kramer anymore, since she is a country star, but I miss her.

The Inside Joke

And then there are my personal favorites, the PEMCO "Northwest Profile" commercials. Each ad centers around a stereotype of Pacific Northwest residents. These commercials work because they demonstrate that PEMCO gets us. 

The story here is, "There are some funny people in the Northwest. And PEMCO caters to all of them." Their ads make use of a key principle of sales: positioning to a specific audience.

And, as a northwesterner, I can attest that the ads are accurate. Especially this one.