Richard Huntington
Richard Huntington
A view from Richard Huntington

Make advertising more like country music

Real emotional connection comes from the specificity of the stories.

This story is about country music, emotion and how we truly connect with our audiences. And it is inspired by that perennial favourite of mezzo-brow thinkers like me, Malcolm Gladwell.

You see, Mr Gladwell has moved beyond the books that graced our shelves for the past 20 years into the world of podcasting and the results are really rather magical. I’m a latecomer to his Revisionist History podcast, thanks to Ian Leslie’s interview with Gladwell in the New Statesman. And I’m obsessed.

Revisionist history is not your standard podcasting fare of B-list celebrity interviews and fireside chats with legends in their own lunch hour. It harks back to the style of Gladwell’s New Yorker essays – a heady cocktail of meticulous research, compelling storytelling and pop-psychology, all packaged up for your dreary daily commute.

You should dive into the four seasons that Gladwell has posted so far; anywhere will do. And if you squint hard enough, you can almost always find an idea that throws light on what we do.

Take the "King of Tears" from series two. In it, Gladwell asks why country music makes you cry but rock and roll simply doesn’t. And I think his answer holds a clue to emotion in advertising and how to genuinely connect with people.

That country is emotional seems self-evident. Heartbreaking stories sung to melancholy melodies creates a cocktail of emotion that’s hard to resist. But surely rock has its fair share of tragedy and minor keys? Well, that’s where Gladwell disagrees – it’s the nature of the storytelling that sets them apart.

Most musical genres tell stories of love, violence, illness, loss, grief, marriages going to hell, addiction, redemption, suffering, pain and the like. But in country music, those stories are painfully real. They are often actual experiences of a real person told in their own words, in great detail, often with deep significance for the singer. The stories deal in the specific and not the generic and, as Gladwell says, "we cry when melancholy collides with specificity".

You don’t believe me? Listen – really listen – to He Stopped Loving Her Today sung by George Jones or indeed D-I-V-O-R-C-E, sung by Tammy Wynette and tell me you’re not welling up.

Not so rock – that is all too often content to skim along the surface of the generic and clichéd when it comes to storytelling. Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, girl and boy shag a lot, girl and boy split up.

Which brings us to advertising.

What country music shows us is that real emotional connection comes from the specificity of the stories we tell, not from the execution. Execution sharpens and amplifies emotion, but we are kidding ourselves, clients, agencies and researchers alike if we think that casting a few cute kids or picking out an acoustic guitar track by an angst-ridden singer-songwriter is the secret to our hearts.

It’s the quality of our stories that matters. Stories that resonate because they come from real people and speak to real people and not from the faked world of adland cliché that pollutes most of the work we make. The endless parade of stock storytelling that is as authentic as a child’s drawing of a house with four windows, a red front door and curly smoke emerging from the chimney. The fact is that most advertising fails to connect because it's allergic to the real, to the particular and to the personal. 

Not so McDonald's. Here is a brand that consistently embraces the specific in its storytelling. No more so that in "Nah you’re alright", which documents the tentative relationship between a kid his mum’s new partner. We may be watching actors but that story, much like the best McDonald’s work, is authentic, detailed and personal, it comes from a place of genuine experience, it deals in the specific.

I think this may also be true of the campaign marking 30 years of the Renault Clio. It charts the relationship between two women and the way that society’s attitudes to their love has changed over the past three decades. This isn’t a brand throwing an LGBT+ couple into the mix to parade its openness. It’s a story about the specific experience of a couple that is born of understanding and not exploitation.

This is advertising, country music-style.

The power of the specific might also explain why, out of the incredible body of work John Lewis has created in the past decade, the standout story for many of us is "The long wait". Yes, there is a cute kid and, yes, the music is as soppy as you like. But the story feels authentic, honest and real, like it could have been your experience or that of your kids. No CGI, no merch – just acutely powerful storytelling.

So why do we tolerate the generic and clichéd in our work? Family life that feels like it's set in New Zealand in the 1950s. Girl-meets-boy stories where people are forever marrying their childhood sweethearts. LGBT+ couples who exist only to kiss on screen but whose lives remain hidden from view. Work life that’s entirely divorced from any understanding of real places of work. And ads that cast black and Asian actors but avoid telling authentic stories of people of colour in this country.

It’s because we avoid the specific.

To start building emotional connections again, we need to write work from our experiences, our lives and our hearts, and not from the big bad book of adland cliché. We need to call it out more often when work descends into the bland and familiar. And, most pressingly, we need to fuel our agencies and their work with fresh talent bearing distinct experiences and a broader palette of stories to tell.

But, most of all, we need to embrace the specific and learn to be a little more T-A-M-M-Y.

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi