This Is Your Brain On Storytelling: The Chemistry Of Modern Communication

By Giovanni Rodriguez for Forbes.com

Back in the 1980’s — at a time when television advertising was still the preferred way to grab the average consumer’s attention — there was a popular public service announcement (PSA) commissioned by the Partnership For A Drug-Free America, a group dedicated to preventing substance abuse among teenagers in the US (disclosure: a former client of mine was part of this campaign). The ad — which originally ran in 1987 in spots as short as 10 seconds — was a vivid, visceral piece of persuasion. In the 15-second version, we first see hot butter melting in the skillet and hear a voice say, “Okay, last time. This is drugs.” At the six-second mark, an egg plops onto the skillet and the voice says, “This is your brain on drugs.” We watch the egg fry — and it fries quickly — and at the twelve-second mark the voice asks,”Any questions?”

Looking back, a few things strike me about the ad. First, it’s a great example of how stories can be told super short formats (foreshadowing what marketers would learn later in the digital age). The PSA had a clear Act I, II, and III.  But the ad also reminds me of the many anti-drug campaigns from that era that failed to engage their stakeholders for lack of an effective rhetorical device. As we learned later, it takes more to wage a war on drugs than to ask children to “just say no.” But what I like most about “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” is how it is unintentionally self-referential. The science of storytelling is actually founded on an understanding of how brain chemistry can be used — for both good and evil — to change human behavior. When we see the egg drop into the pan, a cocktail of chemicals get mixed in our brain, and takes us on a journey.

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