The power of a story in advertising

Are stories really the best way to sell?

When you’re sitting down and watching television and the adverts come on, you’ll notice that most adverts have a compelling storyline – especially at Christmas time. And there are good reasons why so many companies use stories in their marketing. Research has shown that one way that humans make sense of complex information is to turn it into a story in our mind - This means that a well-told story not only captures our imagination and is unforgettable, but it’s also a highly powerful persuasion tool. In fact, the better the story, the more persuasive it is! 

This is the case even for products where we think that shoppers purchase decisions are driven by specifications and performance, such as smart TVs, mobile phones, or computers. But what would happen if a company concentrated on telling a story instead? When a team of researchers redesigned the marketing material for Smart TVs, they found that shoppers were more likely to believe the marketing material when it was presented in a story, rather than emphasising the technical specs. More importantly, not only were they more likely to believe the material, but they were also more likely to purchase the TV. Worryingly the same approach has been shown to persuade in numerous different contexts, including court cases. When jurors deliberate, they attempt to construct a story. The easier it is for the evidence to fit into the narrative, the more plausible it is, and the more likely they are to be persuaded. Consequently, successful lawyers attempt to make it as easy as possible for the jury to construct a plausible narrative.  

This influences the order that barristers call witnesses and the type of questions they ask. Rather than asking witnesses to reveal everything they know about the incidents, questions should be asked so that the evidence is presented as the story unfolds which in most cases is in chronological order. This small change makes a big difference, when the prosecution presents a narrative, and the witnesses are called in the order that they appear in the story 78% of jurors agreed with the prosecution. However, when the witnesses appeared in a different order only 31% of jurors agreed with the prosecution as the evidence was perceived to be less credible even though the evidence and the witness statements were identical. 

Are stories always the best way to persuade?  

This appears to suggest that stories are always the best way to persuade when it comes to marketing, but are there exceptions to this rule? Unfortunately, as with most things in psychology, the answer appears to be yes. When the person you are trying to convince is not highly engaged in the process, for example, while passively watching a television advert, it makes complete sense to use a story or narrative-based approach. It is our job as marketers to try and capture the viewers’ attention and get them to focus on the target message – and in this case, a story is a perfect tool to do this. Likewise, if the facts you have to work with are relatively weak, presenting them in an engaging story is a fantastic approach. People focus on the story and consequently, do not end up critically thinking about the argument you’re making, they just accept them as part of the story. However, if you have just one or two key facts then in this case it often makes more sense to present them in isolation and not part of the narrative. This is because these facts stand up to scrutiny and you are happy for people to think carefully about them. However, this only works when you have one or two facts in isolation. 

It is not only the facts that you have to work with that can make a difference, but the situation is also key. When the person you are trying to persuade is emotionally engaged in the decision, researchers find that anecdotal evidence is typically more persuasive than statistical evidence. However, where they are not emotionally engaged, statistical evidence is more persuasive than anecdotal evidence. This explains some counterintuitive findings. When it comes to health decisions, intuitively doctors feel that statistical evidence is more likely to be successful. How can you argue with hard science? But when we are having to make potentially life-threatening decisions about our treatment or that of our loved ones, we are going to have to deal with an exceptional level of uncertainty and fear. It is hard to imagine a more emotionally laden situation. This potentially explains why the MMR vaccine and autism link was so hard to shake off. It didn’t matter how many peer-reviewed papers demonstrated that there was no link (and the original research was faked), all it took was a few celebrities and parents to claim that the vaccine gave their child autism, and the anecdotal evidence did the rest.  

This does not only apply to decisions connected to our health. It also applies to any decisions where we are highly involved. For example, if the consequences of making a bad decision are high, such as a high involvement purchase (for example for expensive items, or when we are purchasing items that have a high degree of personal relevance for us), then the decision maker is likely to be highly aroused and emotional and again, anecdotal evidence works best. This explains why when it comes to convincing policymakers of the importance of seatbelts for children, statistical evidence is the most successful, but when it comes to persuading parents, anecdotal evidence works best.  

So, what does this mean for marketers?  

If you are creating an advert that is based on an anecdote, then it would be sensible to dial up the emotional content of the story – ensuring that the viewer really believes in your message. In contrast, if your advert is based on statistical facts, it might make more sense to downplay the severity of consequences to reduce consumers’ emotional engagement. It also highlights the importance of well-written testimonials on online shops. Any statistician will tell you that one review online cannot be generalised, but these anecdotes are highly powerful, especially for expensive purchases.  

 

References

Cassar, M. L., Caruana, A., & Konietzny, J. (2021). Facts or story? The impact of website content on narrative believability and purchase intention. Journal of Marketing Communications, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527266.2021.1929408

Freling, T. H., Yang, Z., Saini, R., Itani, O. S., & Abualsamh, R. R. (2020). When poignant stories outweigh cold hard facts: A meta-analysis of the anecdotal bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes160, 51-67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2020.01.006 

Krause, R. J., & Rucker, D. D. (2020). Strategic storytelling: When narratives help versus hurt the persuasive power of facts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(2), 216-227. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0146167219853845

Lempert, R. (1991). Telling tales in court: Trial procedure and the story model.Cardozo L. Rev.,13, 559.

Mello, R. (2001). The Power of Storytelling: How Oral Narrative Influences Children's Relationships in Classrooms. International Journal of Education and the Arts, 2(1)

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1992). Explaining the evidence: Tests of the Story Model for juror decision making. Journal of personality and social psychology, 62(2), 189. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-3514.62.2.189 

Wagenaar, W. A., & Keren, G. B. (1986). The seat belt paradox: Effect of adopted roles on information seeking. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 38(1), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(86)90022-1