Fiction In Advertising


(By Roy Williams) Norman Rockwell was an illustrator of fiction. He never showed us America as it really was, but America as it could have been, should have been, might have been. His images caused an entire generation to vividly remember experiences we never had.

Rockwell showed us a fictional America, and we believed in it.

I don’t want to mention client names and I’m sure you’ll understand why, but my most successful ad campaigns have been built on exactly that kind of fiction.

Not lies. Fiction. There’s a difference.

Fiction is romanticized reality, showing us possible futures and the best of the past, leaving out the dreary, the mundane, and the forgettable. It is a powerful tool of bonding. Properly used, fictional characters can attract new customers and deepen customer loyalties. But predictable characters hold no interest for us. It is conflicted characters — those with vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and flaws — that fascinate us immensely.

A recently published study in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests that fictional friends may be as valuable as “real” friends, particularly when life partners watch television shows together.

“Our studies show that sharing the social connections provided by TV shows and movies can deepen intimacy and closeness. Furthermore, watching TV shows and movies together may provide couples who lack access to a shared social network of real-world friends with an alternate means of establishing this shared social identity. Previously, sharing a social world with a partner has been conceptualized in terms of sharing real-world social experiences. However, creating these experiences may not always be possible. Fortunately, humans are remarkably

flexible in finding ways to fulfill their social needs. When people’s need for social connections is undermined, they turn to a variety of social surrogates that provide alternate pathways to meet this need, including comfort food, photos of loved ones, pets, and media like TV shows and movies.”

Recurrent characters in radio ads fit squarely into that last category of “media like TV shows and movies.”

Science is the study of objective reality.

Art — including radio advertising — is the study of subjective reality.

Subjective reality is perception through filters. It is interpreted reality, romanticized reality, imagined reality. It is your own personal fiction.

Let’s examine objective reality, the foundation of all true science:

According to Dr. Jorge Martins de Oliveira of the Institute of Biophysics, electromagnetic waves exist regardless of whether you perceive them. They are nonfiction. But colors exist in subjective reality, as a result of transformations provided by our senses. Colors are fiction.

Vibrations traveling in air or water are objective, real, nonfiction. But sound is a fiction that exists only in our minds.

Likewise, chemicals dissolved in air or water exist in objective reality, nonfiction. But smells and tastes are purely subjective, fiction. Colors, sounds, smells, and tastes do not exist, as such, outside our brains. And any associations we experience in connection with a color, sound, taste, or smell are purely subjective as well.

Each of us lives in a private world that is mostly subjective fiction, imaginary friends, and mental adventures. This is the world where advertising has its greatest effect.

The current style of ad writing in America is declarative and descriptive, focused mostly on features and benefits. This is why listeners rarely believe it.

We instinctively doubt declarative statements because they tell us what to believe. But stories pull the answers from inside us, and we own every truth that comes from within. This is why it is rare for an argument to overturn something we have realized.

Lead a person to an answer, and they will usually discover it. Lead a person to the truth, and they will cling to it.

Are you declaring things to be true in your ads, or are you telling stories that lead people to the truth? Well-told stories win the heart and take people on journeys in their minds.

Do your stories have a narrative arc and a character arc?

Narrative arc: a sequence of events that unfolds; a continuing storyline. A good ad campaign has a narrative arc that engages the mind of the customer, revealing layer after layer of information about your company, your product, your service.

Character arc: a gradual deepening of our understanding of the character’s motivations, revealed by how the character thinks, speaks, acts, and sees the world; a character’s inner journey over the course of the story. A good campaign has a character arc that entangles the heart of the customer by allowing them to feel they understand why you do the things you do.

Have you been crafting an ad campaign, or have you just been writing a series of ads?

Win the heart, and the mind will follow.

Roy H. Williams is president of Wizard of Ads Inc.


  1. Thanks to Roy for, once again, demonstrating the depths to which radio, particularly advertising, can impact influentially on audiences.
    The next trick, besides his own offerings, is to – find examples of those strategies in the real world of local radio.
    Given the vast majority of direct, declarative and authoritative ads on the air, the idea of applying any subtleties – never mind the extreme nuances and sophisticated alternatives as Roy provides – would be lost on most radio practitioners.
    Nor, I posit, would they be in the least interested.
    The “same-o’-same-o'”, they will insist, is all that has been and all that will be required.

  2. As a wordsmith, writer, media specialist, and political scientist, I must commend Roy Williams on his articulate cogency on the art craft and business of commercial communication. Your article provides clarity in a world where subjective obfuscation too often supersedes objective obsevation. Thank you. You will, and should be quoted.


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