God, science and advertising: Michael Goldthorpe on the value of good storytelling

As we down tools to settle in for the Easter weekend, I got to thinking about God. Don’t panic, this isn’t one of those posts. But it is something I find interesting, so I thought I’d share. This weekend, a whole bunch of Kiwis will mourn a great loss before rolling back a big rock and celebrating a comeback. It’s a big weekend for them. And it got me thinking about how ‘facts’ are largely irrelevant when someone tells a good story – and God tells stories better than most.

Gloves off: Science vs Religion.

My father is a scientist. He’s awfully rational. He can explain just about anything through protons and neutrons and big bangs. He’s also a cleric at the local church. He has faith. It doesn’t add up for me.

I’ll never forget a conversation we had when I was about eight. We were walking in hills in Wales somewhere. It was beautiful. We got talking about God. As you do. And I laid down a challenge. “I don’t get it Dad,” I said. “You’re a scientist. You get the science. You know the ‘truth’. But somehow you still believe in God.”

His answer was all about the stories. “The way I see it,” he said. “God is like the architect. He designed the world, planned it all out and set it up. Science built it.” He explained it by going back to Genesis.

Genesis chapter one: A six-day story of science.

Seeing that I wasn’t buying it, Dad went back to fundamentals (pun intended). He talked me through the creation story in Genesis. That’s the one that starts with light and ends up with animals, people and bit of lie down on Sunday. Dad’s point was that the science backs up the story: the Big Bang and evolution fit together perfectly. It’s just simplified down to help people remember it. They turned the science into a story to get it across. 

Loaves, fishes and parables.

Same thing applies to the story of the loaves and fishes. You know the one – when Jesus was giving a keynote and the crowd was feeling peckish. As the story goes, a small boy went all ‘shared lunch’ with his five loaves and two fishes. Everyone got fed with plenty to spare.

Impossible? Not really. Chances are that a simple act of sharing inspired generosity in the crowd. ‘Hey Presto,’ everyone gets fed. Then the story gets summarised to its core elements and embellished through analogy to make it memorable. ‘Boy shares bread’, whatever. ‘Boy feeds crowd’ is a story that transcends generations through core themes. It’s a great ad for a brand whose values include sharing and caring.

Stories Inspire. Science Explains. Advertising Sells.

So what’s God got to do with advertising? It’s simple. It’s not about ongoing need to elevate clever ad-people as deities. In an industry fuelled by ego and money the reasons for that are self-evident. It’s not even a question of how a religious celebration of hope and salvation spawned a multi-billion dollar secular industry in chocolate eggs. That’s a different story again. The point of this post is stories.

Science deals in facts while religions change lives by telling stories. They do it well. When was the last time someone laid down their life for a burger? Or someone blindly took up arms to ‘fight the good fight’ because Apple feels better than Android? (Bad example, see below, but you get the point).

Long story short, stories help people remember stuff. They make people think. They make people feel. And they get people to act. In an industry whose only real job is to layer rational products with an arbitrary layer of ‘feel good’ to engender loyalty or add a price premium, nothing can beat a well-told story.

So if you want to build a brand. Tell a story.

That’s what I reckon. What do you think?

  • Michael Goldthorpe runs a ‘small agency’ called Hunch.  

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