Looking for Trouble

  • Jason Grant
  • July 30, 2015

“Only trouble is interesting.”

That’s what my favorite writing professor always said.

I heard that phrase over and over for years. So often, in fact, that it stuck with me throughout almost anything I wrote in school, and into my writing career.

I used to think that trouble in writing only applied to fiction and journalism. Not true. Trouble is definitely relevant in marketing — maybe even every industry — and certainly any creative endeavor.

Lately, storytelling has become a big part of seminars, and a topic most marketers are familiar with. Creating the story for a brand is simple: You have a hero, which would be the brand or the product; it stands tall, cape waving in the wind. But the hero isn’t a hero without a little trouble. Your goal is for the hero to overcome this trouble.

Some trouble is obvious: like a limited-edition product, or that special holiday gift every child in America wants. That’s just plain old supply and demand. But, some trouble nestles itself neatly, and discretely into commonplace. You got a flat tire, you stained your favorite shirt, there are annoying water spots on the silverware. Everyone can relate to that kind of trouble.

n old Volkswagen print campaign for the Beetle told its story in a very “less is more” approach. Picture a black VW Beetle at the center of the page; its hood propped open, steam billowing out as if the engine overheated. A man in a suit stands next to his car, helpless, but well dressed. You know it’s his car because the driver’s side door is still open.

The headline: Impossible.

The hero is the product: The Beetle. The goal is to get people to buy this small, different-looking car in a time when big boxy cars were the norm. The trouble shows itself in a pain point most people have experienced, or had at the time this ran: stuck on the side of the road with an overheated engine. And the moral of this story is that Volkswagen Beetles don’t overheat. They’re air-cooled, not water-cooled, like the typical engine of the time. (Thanks Germany, I’ll take two.) Volkswagen solved a common trouble among motorists, in a subtle and sarcastic way, while garnering eyes to the page by focusing on that very trouble.

Some of the most effective comedy is based on pointing out unspoken tension and conflict. In 2014-15, leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, Newcastle took to the Internet with a series of humorous (and expensive) videos using English actor and comedian Stephen Merchant, American actress Aubrey Plaza and British actress Elizabeth Hurley. Each one uses either a long-forgotten tension between America and England, or the trouble with a seemingly disinterested American youth, which Plaza portrays all too well. Point being, there is even trouble in comedic writing.

What I’ve learned is that people really are only interested in trouble. No matter what the medium you’re working in, you have to find the drama in everything. So, like those reality shows we all “love” so much, find your drama. That drama is the trouble to leverage, highlight, and to overcome. Find it in every FSI, TV spot, or case card. Find it in the product, the consumer, and the need it fulfills. Find it in your own experiences. Find it in every song, every story, and every street corner. Just keep looking for trouble.

  ~ Jason Grant, Alcone Senior Copywriter