Lessons from an Ad Agency: Fear, Hope, and Fantasy in Genre Writing

Lessons from an Ad Agency: Fear, Hope, and Fantasy in Genre Writing

One of the worst pieces of advice ever given to a screenwriter has to be:

“Write what you know.”

So, a 21-year-old can only write about high school or college? A single screenwriter can never write about married life?

It’s absurd.

Writers are much more empathetic. After all, we rarely ever write our biography on the page. Granted, we may write parts of ourselves into the story or character, but by and large we find ways to relate. So, whether our story is about a teenager trying out for the cheerleading squad or a spy contemplating retirement or a creature from the Black Lagoon desiring a playmate, the key is relatability. If you can relate, you can write.

An ad agency is a great place to find such practices holding plenty of terrific lessons for screenwriters. After all, agencies have dozens of clients, various brands, and a wide range of demographics that a copywriter must cover. The audiences they must appeal to may run the gamut from busy moms to hedge fund managers to empty nesters, and everything in-between. There may be differences in age, income and geography, but a good copywriter finds the universal truths in all. It’s a lot like screenwriting for various genres.

Some ways an ad agency can inform writers toiling in horror, romantic comedy, and kids genres:

Fear Motivates Jigsaw and Old Spice

I was once at a pitchfest presenting a horror movie idea to a producer, and he asked if there was blood on every page. I told him no, and our chat grinded to a halt, as he informed me that that was what he was looking for.

Before I left, I asked him for a movie sample of such a thing and he volunteered Saw. I told him he was wrong, and that even though Saw sequels seriously upped the bloodletting, they were not wall-to-wall splatterfests. Instead, I told him, what the series was selling was fear. That was what was there on every page—the fear of bodily harm and death, not actual bloodletting. In Saw, as in most of the better entries in the horror genre, it’s really about making people afraid, not squeamish. Fear sells.  

I know that because, as an advertising copywriter, I often dealt in fear. Indeed, selling fear is one of the best tools in an advertiser’s toolkit, so effective that it’s used to sell everything from deodorants to homemade cookies to political candidates.

In a deodorant ad, your stink will sink you from scoring a promotion, so better get those pits smelling like daisies. If you don’t bake homemade cookies with your kids, you’re a negligent parent, so bond over baking with the best morsels. And the message is always that fear can be squelched if you choose the right hero to vanquish it. Such thinking is employed ceaselessly in advertising and in the horror genre.  

Hope Drives Romance on Madison Avenue and Tinsel Town

What are those ridiculous holiday car commercials with the oversized bows really selling? Hoity-toity rides? Nope. They’re almost always selling a romantic Christmas. See, most adults feel that Xmas is all about the kids, and they struggle to find rewards in all the stress of the season. Thus, Lexus and other high-end automobiles promise unbridled hugs, joy, and yes, the promise of romance for those who purchase such cars for their significant other.

Hope is almost always the driver towards romance in advertising. Hope for a new love, more love, more sex … what the world needs now is love, sweet love, right? Hope for love, longing if you will, is not only a (ahem) key driver in car advertising and other product sells, but it’s right there in romantic comedies. After all, rarely does a romcom deal with an existing couple. Instead, it’s usually about getting lovers together, finally, after some sort of adventure together. And all the while they’re interacting together, they’re pining for each other, whether they know it or not.

That’s why Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan don’t get together until the end of Sleepless in Seattle. It’s why Hugh Grant doesn’t get the girl, his secretary, until the last reel of Love, Actually. And even in adventure films with a romantic undercurrent, such as a search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the duo finally becomes a de facto couple only at the end. Indiana Jones saving the world from Nazis was a bigger priority in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but still, the hope was that if he could prevail there, he’d get back together with his old flame. I’m not saying that the screenwriters of these classics learned about romantic longing from the world of advertising, but it drives such narratives.

Kids Want to Be Adults

Why does the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have such a hold on adults? My God, the devotion of chat rooms, blog posts, and YouTube videos by adults pouring over every moment of each episode of "Wandavision" is borderline hilarious.

Why do adults care so much about such fantasy?

Quite simply, fantasy is the earliest kind of advertising we adults have experienced, being force-fed a diet of it in almost every child’s ad or commercial for the past 60 years. We grew up on it, and it’s reinforced in the ad world daily. Almost every kind of advertising suggests that we can live a better life if we just buy this product or that.  

And it starts with the kiddies. Ad agencies know that the number one thing children want is to be older. Older means more control, less interference from parents, and a level of cool that they think will look good on them. That’s why toy advertising, the earliest kind that kids experience, generally traffic in narratives involving role play. Playing with a Batman action figure, driving a tricked out bike, mastering a handheld computer game that takes brains and skill ... such toys all help kids feel more mature and yes, cooler.

One could argue the very premise of storytelling, putting ourselves in the shoes of others for an enthralling adventure, is what drives every entertainment, be it toys, or songs, or Broadway shows. The MCU is so successful in part because they realize how baked in the cake fantasy is for most adults. We all wish for a better tomorrow, a brighter future, and that’s what the ad world drives home.

Advertising recognizes that most people are driven by emotion. Yes, there are always salient product points that help close the deal, but the best ads make us feel good about the product and better about ourselves when we imagine ourselves using it. Films and TV shows can be intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking, but how they play in our guts are usually more convincing than how they play in our heads.

Most people don’t pay that close attention to an ad to get all the copy points anyway. But they get the gist of it, the feel of it, the emotion of it. Hollywood storytelling can have lots of holes, but if the feels are there, chances are the film will be effective. If you're writing a script, aim your words directly at your audience’s mid-section.

I’m reminded of an interview filmmaker Sydney Pollack gave to Roger Ebert where he acknowledged that there were some major problems and plot holes within the script of The Way We Were, but they weren’t going to ruin the emotional journey for the audience. Pollack boasted about how he knew that the end scene in the script would have everyone in tears as the misbegotten lovers would meet and say goodbye on a Manhattan street corner. Indeed, that scene did pack an emotional wallop, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I saw it.

If your script can get that kind of reaction, trust Sydney, your audience will be sold.

*Feature Image: scenes from Love, Actually / Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
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