Advertising and filmmaking have had a long and mutually rewarding history together. It is only logical then that insights must exist from the world of filmmaking which can be applied to the world of advertising.

Films and televisions shows have long offered advertisers a perfect forum for subtle (and sometimes none-too-subtle) product placement even before the fast-forward-through-the-commercials, set-top box era of entertainment. Filmmakers like David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Ridley Scott honed their skills in the advertising world. Here is Ridley Scott’s  famous 1984 Superbowl spot for Apple Mac:

Cinematic narrative structure holds key insights into what compels people to keep watching, what elicits emotional responses from the viewers and clever techniques to help build affinity with your audience.

So, first off, what is cinematic structure and why would it have any relevance to advertising?

Well, on the whole, Hollywood cinematic structure tends to follow the Aristotelian approach … wait, wait, come back … don’t run off just because we mentioned Aristotle! His theory is really not that complicated. Aristotle just believed that every story had three Acts or parts. Those three parts can be summed up as a beginning, a middle and an end. Still with me? Haven’t scared you off with talk of Greek philosophers? Good.

Now I’m singling out Hollywood structure because there are other structural types in cinema but mostly they’re the filmic equivalent of shoe-gazing experimental indie music. (Some of it can be quite good but you have to be in the right mood) So popular cinematic structure follows a three part formula - but when you think about it - so do ads. We’re introduced to the characters or the set up (beginning), something happens (the middle) and our character/scene is affected somehow by it (the end). Simple right? The difference is that the narrative in advertising is hyper condensed into a very short time - usually 30 but occasionally, when creatives get lucky, 60 seconds. And that’s it, that’s what structure is.

So why is structure important?

Well, you know that moment when you’re with your friends and you’re describing why your new favourite film just seems to ‘work’ but you can’t really put your finger on why that is - well that’s structure. It’s the hidden framework that makes it all ‘feel’ right. Now most people don’t notice structure when they’re watching something because they’re too busy being entertained but when you delve into it you notice that there are similarities that they all share which you might not have spotted first time around. And the beauty is that if you know and understand these shared traits you can use them to help make your narrative (story) more appealing and engaging.

It’s also measurable - which is something rare in the advertising world where creative is oftentimes seen as ‘hit or miss’ or ‘in the lap of the gods’. The closer your ad conforms to the three act structure the more likely it is that it will succeed. It’s no coincidence that the best films in Hollywood history also tend to be the ones with the best structures.


So how can we use this in advertising?

People want to be engaged on an emotional level. That’s why we go to art galleries, why we watch TV shows, why we curl up with a great book, why we laugh at sketch shows and why we pay a trip to the cinema every couple of weeks. If advertisers learn from the best Hollywood films how to affect an audience on an emotional level they can use this to create an emotional connection to the brand itself.

Look at Juan Cabral’s incredible new commercial for IKEA:

We’re introduced to the main character (the beginning) who is on a bed high above the clouds and faced with the choice of jumping out into thin air … will she? won’t she? … she does and instead of plummeting to her doom … she lands in an incredibly comfortable IKEA bed … and another … and another … and on and on as she fluffily tumbles her way back down to earth (the middle) until she’s drops straight back into her own wonderfully comfy bed where she snuggles up and pulls the covers tighter because it was all a wonderful dream of adventure (the end). 

Simple right? Yes, because this ad conforms to the exact kind of structure outlined earlier. That’s why it works so well - because it creates emotional responses of comfort and safety in the viewer who then connect those emotional responses to the brand itself.


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