Two nights ago I took part in one of the last nearly universal experiences of our fragmented culture. Chances are, you also watched the Super Bowl. Probably with a group.
There were six of us watching in our house: my wife and I, our daughter and son-in-law, and our son-in-law's parents. Admittedly, we skewed the demographics, with four of us over age fifty, two in their twenties, and all of us married and Christians. But we also got word that our son, who seldom watches television and never watches sports, planned to take his wife to a Super Bowl party hosted by someone from his office.
What can attract then keep the attention of such diverse groups? A lot has to be hype and momentum. Like eating turkey on the fourth Thursday of November or putting up Christmas decorations, it's a cultural expectation. No matter if you buy into the premise behind the event, you're expected to participate.
In our house, three of us watched mostly for the commercials. Maybe in your house too. Now that two days have passed, which of those thirty-second, $3.5 million mini-dramas do you remember? (And do you remember what product they advertised?)
A few I enjoyed, but many left me offended or puzzled. I could dismiss the second two responses by the fact I'm not in the target demographic. I watch few movies and I've already purchased a web domain through a different company, so why should the advertisers care if I'm alienated by violent film trailers or the portrayal of women as sex objects? I'm unlikely to wait in line to buy an electronic gadget, so why not build an ad around the shared experience of people who would?
Still, a lot of the advertisements hyped products many of us buy, especially food and drink and lower-priced automobiles. (Do the makers of Audi really think the people who can afford their cars are into vampires?)
Reflect on the best of those ads—the ones you still remember. Most included three elements: humor, surprise, and story. (Yes, those are closely related. Humor often includes surprise. And stories depend on people being unsure what will happen next.) I probably should add a fourth element: characters. Many of those ads had you cheering for the underdog—some of them literally.
In case you paid attention to the football game, most of those same elements also came into play. (Except perhaps for humor.) The commentators made a point to focus on the characters: the opposing coaches and quarterbacks, the star players, and those who arose from obscurity to make a key play. There were abundant surprises, setbacks, and reversals of fortune, with the outcome not decided until the final seconds.
Somewhere in that Sunday night experience, there might be a lesson for writers.