So… that cover art that I was promised would be done two weeks ago still has not been completed yet (I’ve gotten two drafts in the past two weeks, both further along in completion than the previous week, but nothing final yet. Until it’s final, I’m not paying for it, and until I pay for it, I can’t post any of the cover drafts here). And I’m still working my way through the clean-up of the edits; that’ll probably take me another couple weeks.
I missed adding a blog last week (actually, I wrote about 75% of this post last week, but then forgot to finish and post it), and I don’t think it would be a good idea to miss two Sunday Blogs in a row during a period I should be trying to ramp up interest in my upcoming novel, so I’ve got to figure out something to add as a filler.
Well, I’ve got an idea inspired by the buzz over “Superbowl Commercials.” Now, I wish I’d remembered to finish this post and get it out there last week, when it would have been more timely, but it isn’t really about the Super Bowl. It’s about commercials. In fact, I’m pretty sure that none of these ads aired during any Superbowl, ever. Specifically, I was looking for good commercials which, in just a minute or two, maybe without even a single spoken word, were stories that fit the elements of an Aristotilian tragedy, a classical epic, and\or a heroes journey.
Let’s start with the Aristotilian Tragedy of these examples. (And I’m using this link because that’s what came up in the Google search; I could cite print books for all of these literary forms, but I couldn’t link to them). As the link says, these tragedies include: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, and Spectacle. Oh, yes, and a musical number. And it ends with a catharsis. Only the first two (plot and character) are truly required, but let’s see how many of them this commercial can get into its one minute and two seconds of length.
Plot: It’s a fairly simple plot, but any sporting event has plots and subplot. This may be only the last few seconds of one such sporting event, but you’ve effectively got all the details you need for the game there — it’s clearly a special game (homecoming, most likely, though maybe a playoff game), but the home team heroes lose to the visiting team (cast as the villains in the piece, sort of) in the last second. The strange thing about this “plot” is that it’s complete in the first thirty-five seconds of the minute long commercial; the rest is denouement.
Character: Lots of characters in this one. You’ve got the home team hero, holding the ball. You’ve got the “villain” who steals it. You’ve got the coach, who recognizes what is going to happen only too late. The cheerleaders, who are watching in shock. There’s certainly no lack of characters.
Thought: In this case, ‘thought’ refers more to theme than anything. And the theme is one of loss. Yes, it’s just the loss of a basketball game, but that’s still a loss.
Diction: Okay, I gotta admit, there isn’t a single word written or spoken in the whole thing, which makes anything you could call ‘diction’ (the “expression of the meaning of the words”) hard to find. I don’t think that should disqualify it as a tragedy, though.
Spectacle: The spectacle, in Aristotilian tragedy, is the part least related to literature. In essence, it refers to the special effects, the props, the staging, etc. Now, everything about this whole ad is spectacle — the slow motion, the dark lighting, that spinning tiger’s head… it’s all spectacle. But, in this case, it’s the spectacle that makes all the previous elements work.
Music: There is no spoken word, no “chorus” as Aristotle would think of it… but the music that plays throughout this commercial just sets the mood. Lacrimosa, from Mozart’s Requiem (a song for the dead), is appropriately mournful, and the spectacle and the theme (or thought) are perfectly set up by this music.
Catharsis: And here is where it uses the elements of a tragedy to be a good ad. I’m not even sure the advertisers thought of it this way, but at the end of this tragedy, the “Catharsis,” the way to purge yourself of the tragic emotions that this commercial evokes, is to buy the shoe they’re trying to sell. And all they need to do this is to show you an easily-recognized logo, and suddenly you know.
Now, ‘epic’ is a word that has come to mean a lot of things. To be clear, I’m referring to whether or not a single commercial can fit the classical epic tradition. The form of “epic” your High School English teacher used to refer to works such as Gilgamesh, Homer’s Oddysey, Beowulf, and the like. Huge works, typically, that included specific elements: A hero, who does great deeds, across a vast setting, highly stylized, with an element of divine intervention, ending with a heroes reward.
I had an English teacher who delighted in pointing out how the Princess Bride espoused all of these — a relatively short comedy, which you wouldn’t normally think of as an epic at all — but even that is massive compared to the one minute twenty second ad below:
The young boy in this commercial is our Hero. You might say he’s on a quest to woo the maiden fair, or you might just say he’s a little preteen kid, but he is certainly — from a literary perspective — the hero of this piece.
Again, there’s not a single spoken word (beyond the name “Lily”), lending to a very stylized form of storytelling. Arguably, this is a story which would have had a lot less impact if it had used words… (especially since this ad was for a European supermarket chain, and the language isn’t one I’m familiar with).
Now, let’s get this out of the way now: You might consider this too “small” in scope and setting to be an epic. After all, it’s really just two houses across the street from one another, with a brief scene in a department store. But scope is relative; for a character like our Hero, someone who is still into making bed forts and the like, ‘across the street’ might as well be ‘across the galaxy.’ But what about the other elements of an epic?
Does he do great deeds in his quest? Well, yes — he completes the snowmen for the girl he’s crushing on. With remarkable likenesses. In one night. Sneaking past his overprotective (as seen by the father covering up his eyes) parents’ guard to do so. Considering the scope of the characters, that was a tremendous deed.
But our Hero is still struggling to find a way to ask the girl out. Obviously, he settles on a note… but how to deliver it? He considers several options, but he either can’t find the courage or the technique he needs to give it to the girl face to face. And there is where the divine intervention comes in… in the form of a Han Solo doll: Searching for inspiration, he sees his little Han Solo doll pointing in the direction of his Stormtrooper helmet… and suddenly he knows just what to do.
And in the end, he is rewarded by the girl coming over (in Leia costume, accompanied by a Chewbacca-dog) for Christmas dinner, gift in hand.
Brings tears to my eyes… (literally, the first time I saw it).
The Heroes Journey
Many years ago, Joseph Campbell wrote the definitive work describing the Heroes Journey. Now, I would recommend reading the whole book, but a simple summary of what he’s talking about can be found here: It starts in a relatively ordinary world, but the hero recieves a call to adventure. First he refuses, but then finds a mentor who guides him into the journey ahead. He crosses the first threshold, finds allies and enemies, has setbacks, crosses a major hurdle, and then gets a reward. After being rewarded, he starts on a journey back to his ordinary life, wherin he must use everything he has learned, and those things help him apply that knowledge to his once-again ordinary life.
That’s twelve steps; in a two minute commercial (far longer than most commercials in the US, but the example I’m giving was aired in South Africa), that just leaves you just ten seconds for each element. Not possible, you say? Well…
(incidentally, his may very well be my favorite of these three ads)
Let’s see: We have a hero who has an ordinary life, who has made a living for himself without ever learning how to read. It can be assumed that at some point, he decided to ‘refuse the call to adventure’ that is learning how to read, but there is this mysterious man in a poster who encourages him to learn how — his “mentor.”
He crosses the first threshold at the very start of this commercial, buying some books on how to read. He finds allies in his teacher, his wife, the shopkeeper at the fishmarket, his buddies at the cafe that he plays Scrabble against, etc. He has setbacks (spelling cat “kat”), but he crosses a major hurdle (getting the “gold star”) and completes his adult literacy class (the reward). He starts his journey back to an ordinary life by opening the book his “mentor” had written, using his newfound literacy to read it… before finally meeting with said mentor, who turns out to be his son, who you can tell is just so impressed that his father would learn how to read just to read his book that he has to celebrate… and in a way that the ordinary man would appreciate: With a Bell’s Scotch Whiskey.
Another ad that brought tears to my eyes…
Are you readers of this blog following what I’m doing here? These are great commercials not necessarily because they sell the product (two of the products — Kaufman’s grocery store and Bell’s Scotch — aren’t even available in my country; the third, a type of shoe, is for a variety of shoe I don’t need) but because they really are stories, accomplishing in just one or two minutes what the greats of literature needed prolonged stories to tell.
You could sum it up as “size doesn’t matter when it comes to story,” but I’m not really trying to put a moral on this. I’m just celebrating great storytelling. And these ads tell great stories.
It’s such a shame that most advertisers these days think the likes of “puppymonkeybaby” (no video or link added because I don’t want to have to watch it again to find it) are great ads. After all, they think, everyone’s talking about it (in horror and disgust, but who cares about that?), so it must be good. Who cares about great storytelling when you’re the talk of the Superbowl?
Edit: Comments closed due to spammers.