What The Phantom Menace Teaches Us About Writing Good Ad Copy

Why The Phantom Menace sucks–and why it matters.

Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace is, critically, the worst Star Wars film. It’s certified “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes with an aggregated score of 55%, and it holds the lowest IMDB score of any film in the franchise (6.5). Though critical reaction was mixed upon release, the film has since fallen into notoriety–so much so, Disney refuses to set any of its new IP in the prequel time period, aside from two limited-run Marvel comics. (Or, at least, that was the case when I originally wrote this article.)

It’s also the film that began prioritizing product over story. Though The Phantom Menace sets the stage for every major cinematic achievement in the early 21st century, from The Lord of the Rings to Sin City, the film itself–sucks. It’s bloated, boring, tone deaf, and borderline offensive at times; it feels less like a story and more like a corporate Star Wars checklist: there are Jedi, lightsabers, royalty, chases, romances (sort of), Darth Vader (sort of), the Force (sort of), music, droids, spaceships, aliens, good guys, bad guys, comic relief, stars, and wars.

‘Did you read the opening crawl?’ Check.

‘Did you notice the John Williams score?’ Check.

‘Did you catch all the original trilogy references?’ Double check.

There’s so much content, there’s no time to stop and appreciate it. And there’s almost no reason to care about any of it: the stakes aren’t high enough, and the characters aren’t relatable enough.

The Plinkett Test

To illustrate, here’s a clip from Red Letter Media’s review of the film. In it, Mr. Plinkett asks people to describe characters from the prequel trilogy without referencing their appearances, job titles, or costumes. This is their response

To no one’s surprise, prequel characters are hard to describe. Why? Because they have no character. Queen Amidala is her costume; Qui Gon Ginn is his job; Anakin Skywalker is his age. There’s nothing deeper that defines them. Original trilogy characters, by contrast, are much more vibrant. Han Solo is charming, cocky, and roguish. Chewbacca is a big softy; C-3PO is prissy. These characters are memorable because they have personalities. They aren’t just vessels to sell toys.

So what can we learn from The Phantom Menace? And how can those lessons affect the way we approach advertising copy?

Good ad copy tells good stories.

Imagine your favorite ad. It might be Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign or Volkswagen’s “Lemon” ads. What single element do these ads share?

They tell stories.

Rick Boyko, former creative president of VCU’s Brandcenter, sums up the entire industry in one sentence: “We are storytellers in service of brands.” (Sullivan 143).

On paper, our job is to deliver leads and/or clicks for our clients. In reality, our job is to intrigue, entertain, and compel–to find the middle ground between the client, the audience, and ourselves and to force people to pause, reflect, and act. We are music makers, dreamers.  Our work can literally change lives.

Want to go “viral”? Tell human truths.

But don’t just take my word for it. Several industry leaders preach this exact message. Ed Robinson, co-founder of the Viral Factory, insists that ads should use the truth to emotionally stir people. He writes:

“This is the key for us–does the idea hold a human truth which goes beyond us (An advertising agency getting paid to flog some stuff) and the client (who thinks only of their product). If it doesn’t then it has no viral potential” (Iezzi 86).

Simply put, we can’t move audiences with bland words. We can’t go viral without stories that tell hard truths.

Like The Phantom Menace, most ad copy I see at work treats content like a checklist:

What’s the product called? Check.

What is it? How much? Check.

Should I click to learn more? Double check.

Though necessary, these features alone will not sell products long-term. These basic ads present too much information and don’t tell a story. They don’t intrigue their audience, and they don’t compel them to click. (Yes, telling someone to click doesn’t actually work.) There is no “character”; instead, they feel cold, corporate, and calculated.

Got [Blue] Milk?

In the early 90s, milk was on the decline (can you believe it?). For over 100 years, marketing companies sold milk the same way: by listing benefits. “MILK BUILDS STRONG BONES!” While this strategy worked for most of the 20th century, it had soured (no pun intended) by the 90s. Enter Jeff Goodby. Instead of listing benefits, Goodby told a story through deprivation: “Got Milk?” The speaker doesn’t have milk, and they want it. There’s tension, there’s conflict, and it leaves the resolution hanging to inspire the consumer to act (Sullivan 145). This is the exact kind of writing we should be doing. ‘Call a recruiter” and “sign-on bonus available” will sour eventually. If it can happen to milk, it can happen to anything else.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s look at it a different way.

Using the Plinkett Test On Ad Copy

I work in B2B advertising for the trucking industry. Here are two competing headlines I saw the other day:

    1. Now Hiring Company Drivers
    2. Welcome to the Big Time

CTAs aside, how do these headlines make you feel? What’s your gut reaction to them?

Let’s run them through the Plinkett test. Describe the “speaker” in these headlines without describing what they look like, what they might be wearing, or what profession they might have.

Chances are, you can’t describe the “character” in the first ad–not without describing their clothing or job title. The person who writes “Now Hiring Company Drivers” probably sits at a cubicle and wears a polo, khakis, and one of those bulky telemarketer headsets. They want to sell you something.

The second speaker is much clearer. They’re a straight shooter, the kind of guy (or gal) who speaks from their chest and walks with a little swagger. Even when they’re not the boss, they command your respect. They are someone you can trust when the going gets tough: they won’t sugar coat bad news, and they won’t skimp out on congratulations.

You probably know someone like this. As a copywriter, I hope you do. And I hope my ad reminds you of them.

For funsies, I ran both lines through CoSchedule’s headline analyzer, which grades headlines on usage, frequency, and relevance. Here’s a link to their analyzer, if you’re interested.

The first scored a 30, and the second scored a 79. Whoa.

Simply stating the obvious doesn’t compel anyone to act. However–strong, emotional language that tells a story both builds a relationship between the ad and the audience and compels them to click.

FYI, I also ran “The Phantom Menace” through the CoSchedule headline analyzer. It scored a 41.

Let that sink in.

Anywho, that’s me this week. How do you use story in your ad copy?

Let me know in the comments.


FYI, irrecolletions is now on Twitter. Follow along for insights and daily snippets.

Works Cited

Iezzi, Teressa. The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Sullivan, Luke. Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads, 4th Ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review.” Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review, YouTube, 9 Apr. 2012, youtu.be/FxKtZmQgxrI.

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5 thoughts on “What The Phantom Menace Teaches Us About Writing Good Ad Copy”

    1. Thanks. I stole that mini lesson from Luke Sullivan. Hey Whipple’s basically the copy Bible. Definitely worth $15 on Amazon; I’ve bought it for each of my teammates.

  1. I appreciate you bringing out several more references to make your point here, because I am in the minority when I say – I am definitely not a Star Wars fan. So perhaps a good thing I missed out on this movie?

    Anyway, you make ad copy sound really glamorous. You sold me on that one. So now, where did I click?!

    1. All the best writers wrote for a living. I like to think writing from necessity makes for he best work.

      Haha–but it’s hardly glamorous. I spend way too much time in front of a computer, writing. The longer I sit, the longer my waistline gets. It’s a sedentary life, but someone’s gotta do it.

  2. Sorta related. I can write brilliant ad-copy for brands I have worked for, but selling myself and my own wares? Imposter syndrome takes a big bite and I can never find the words.

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