Simple Storytelling in One Great Christmas Commercial

When I was a kid, the commercial below from a Pennsylvania restaurant called Eat n’ Park was on TV every Christmas season.

I don’t live in Pennsylvania anymore or anywhere near an Eat n’ Park but my hometown friends and family pass this commercial around Facebook every years. Maybe that happens because of nostalgia, and that’s a big part of it, yes. But I also think we’re so drawn to it because in just 30 seconds, it harnesses the power of storytelling in a way that’s allowed it to endure for more than 30 years.

I’ll get to the storytelling in the commercial in a moment, but the story of the commercial is almost just in good. It seems from the beginning, Eat n’ Park’s CEO wanted to create something timeless for the holiday. In fact, he charged their ad agency at the time, Ketchum, ‘with creating a message that would ‘last for 20 years.’

Easy, right? Craig Otto, then a young Art Director, and Cathy Bowen, a fledgling Copy Writer at the time, lead the project. The pair worked for 3 weeks to generate over 30 ideas, none of which were met with approval. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of an animated commercial, but they still weren’t sure where they were going with it.

One Sunday shortly thereafter, Craig decided to come into the office. He sketched out a star, a traditional holiday image, and then stopped. “How does the star get to the top of the tree?” He played around with a few ideas until deciding that, of course, the star would need some help from the tree itself. In a fateful coincidence, Cathy had also decided to come in to the office that Sunday. So, while Craig worked out the illustrations, Cathy devised a simple, yet perfect sentiment to wrap up the commercial.

Jim immediately loved the spot, and an ageless favorite was born. Even better, the commercial has outlasted his original expectations. The idea of the relationship between the tree and the star illustrates a timeless holiday lesson – by helping another, you’re helping yourself, and you’re making the world a better place.

Storytelling in 30 Seconds

Eat n' Park Christmas Commercial
The storytelling in this commercial is pretty simple, yet it’s endured for more than 30 years.

So we have a protagonist, the star, with a problem. How exactly does he get to the top of the tree? This is where he is in the beginning. He has a goal, and we’re about to watch try to reach that goal through the beginning, middle and end. He tries, he fails, he tries again, he fails. But then there’s a plot twist. Just when all seems lost, just when it seems like the protagonist is going to fail and his journey will come to the end, the tree bends down and picks him up. Success! A happy ending.

You can see a lot of storytelling principles at work here. There’s an act structure. In act one, the star is on the ground and somehow decides that life must change and he must get on top of that tree. That takes us to act two. He tries to get up there but encounter obstacles that prevent him from reaching his goal. First, there’s the height of the tree. Second, there’s the fact that his “wings” are too small to carry him too far. We reach the climax and the turning point into act three when it seems our hero has given up after failing and failing, but he gets an unlikely assist that saves the day. What’s more, that assist makes sense. By helping the star, the tree helped himself to what he needed — to be decorated for the holiday.

The narration at the end and the lighting of the tree are a bit of denouement that reinforce not only the story we just saw, but that the hero’s goal was a worthy quest.

Captivating a Generation

The keys here are sort of twofold, at least from a storytelling perspective. One, we’re rooting for that little star, right? We want him on top of that tree because that is where he belongs. Not sad and alone on the ground, but on top. And two, the writers gave him an impossible task. One he wasn’t suited for, yet determined to achieve. In my post on creating characters, I noted that watching characters succeed makes for a boring story. Watching characters try and fail yet not give up is exciting. Figuring out what your characters are good at and forcing them to tackle the opposite, even better. Stars are good at sitting on top of trees. They’re not good at climbing them all by themselves.

Your stories can be this simple, too. I’m not saying they will or should ever be 30 seconds long (though they can — I love flash fiction myself), they’ll probably have a lot more meat on their bones. But when you have a story that you can break down so far that its major points, its beginning, middle, end, its hero and his or her goal, its resolution can — boiled to their essence — all fit into the space of a 30 second commercial, you have a story that will resonate, no matter what.

Start simple, and build from there.