Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a fun and memorable Christmas song. But, it’s easy to forget that the story was created by Montgomery Ward department stores.

The idea of using stories to draw customers is not new. Stories have a way of engendering affection, and affection is a coveted asset. But if you’ve paid attention in recent years, you’ve surely noticed a revival in this approach to advertising, from Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches to Apple’s “Misunderstood” Holiday spot (or, because I’m a new dad, this perfectly executed tear-jerker from Coca Cola). Labeled “sadvertising,” commercials like these were effective at grabbing attention, spurring conversation, and ultimately creating loyal followers.

Social changes compelled brands to talk less about products and more about purpose.

But why now? What is it about this particular moment that has spurred interest in storytelling? The answer is found in the way millennials value brands—by brand values—and their high preference for meaningful experiences. More so than previous generations, millennials reward businesses they perceive as making a positive contribution to society, and who share their personal ethics. A recent report published by the Morning Consult showed how brand values impact millennial purchasing decisions.

These social changes compelled brands to talk less about products and more about purpose. Advertisers began focusing more on values and emotions, and there’s no better way to do that than through stories. At the same time, we’ve seen an explosion in media platforms available to content producers. Companies like YouTube and Netflix have drastically lowered the bar and attracted viewership that rivals top cable networks.

Today, there are more ways than ever to grab attention with stories. What may have begun as sadvertising has matured and expanded as creatives explore the many ways to entertain audiences. We haven’t seen the word “advertainment” thrown around yet, but we’re happy to get it started. Let’s take a look at a few of our favorites around the Polymath water cooler (yes, we literally have a Slack channel called “water cooler”).


Check out REI’s brilliant video blogs. These documentary-style stories follow people on aspirational outdoor adventures—classic triumph-over-adversity narratives in the context of REI’s brand and audience. They want to inspire you to dream, to go on your own adventures, and more importantly, to think of REI as the company who can help you get there.

Kate Spade

Kate Spade took a more fictionalized approach with their #Missadventure campaign featuring well-known actresses in awkward situations. Since finding success with an initial commercial around the concept using actress Anna Kendrick, the brand has developed and launched three whole seasons of episodes featuring Zosia Mamet, Anna Farris, Rosie Perez, and others. The stories capture the essence of the brand behind the products, and invite viewers to “shop the film” by purchasing items seen in the episodes.

Apple + Nike

As part of a campaign to promote the Apple Watch, a series of shorts were created in which comedian Kevin Hart plays himself going on a run with the watch for the first time. But he loves it so much he keeps running and gets lost in a desert 700 miles away. This hilarious series keeps audiences coming back to see what happens next. The genius behind the premise is that Apple need only to promote the first spot to hook audiences into searching out the rest.

…What can we learn from these examples? For starters, putting a celebrity in an awkward situation is always a winner. But more generally, audiences want to engage with interesting stories, and a couple million views on Youtube is often going to deliver better returns than an isolated ad.