Yep, I do. And I play pretty fast and loose with the term, too. But there’s a method to my madness. Won’t you join me as I saunter down the trope-y garden path?
But before we begin: A warning. Stay on that path. If you stray, you may end up lost in the dark wood, and stumble across a place called TV Tropes. And it will devour all your free time. In a glorious self-referential display, TV Tropes even has a page about how TV Tropes will ruin everything for you. I’m not kidding. That site is a massive time sink (but also excellent and useful for analyzing storytelling). So. Beware, abandon all hope, etc.
Back to tropes. What are they? Strictly speaking, they’re figurative language — similes, metaphors, figures of speech, that sort of thing. But like a lot of terms, the word has mutated over time and now means rhetorical or literary devices, the techniques that are the basic building blocks of storytelling. Like Legos. You can use the same blocks (knights and princesses) to build a spaceship (Star Wars) or a castle (King Arthur).
But where do they come from, and how do we use them to make marketing that doesn’t suck? Well, the first part of that question is harder to answer than the second.
There’s this thing called the oral tradition. And it’s super old. There are all sorts of tricks and techniques that people used, and still use, to remember long texts in cultures or situations with no writing. Sometimes verbatim. Sometimes not so much.
“Wait a sec, Steph…still use?”
Uh, yeah. You do it. No, really. Any time you use repetition to remember something, or teach a kiddo the ABCs with a song, or say My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas to list the planets (we miss you, Pluto! Tasteless but superlative joke here.), you’re using the same techniques as Homer. You clever thing. Of course, these techniques are just the tip of the iceberg. There are all sorts of shortcuts we use, such as:
- Character types! Damsel in distress (ugh), dumb jock (also ugh), honorable hero (pardon me as I think about Chris Evans), tormented villain (pardon me as I think about Tom Hiddleston (which, let’s be real, is not an infrequent occurrence)).
- Story types! Westerns (bang bang), space opera (pew pew), knights in shining armor (er…joust joust?), horror (grr grr).
- Conflict types! Protagonist vs. Antagonist, Protagonist vs. Society, Protagonist vs. Self, etc.
And, like the late-night ads say, much much more!
One thing to keep in mind, here. These tropes are old, but don’t assume they’re universal. If you can ignore the abuse of apostrophes, this page has an interesting break down on telling the story of Hamlet to the Tivi in Western Africa. Stories are context dependent and contexts change from place to place and time to time. There used to be ads suggesting husbands beat their wives for getting the wrong brand of coffee! Be smart. Don’t do that.
On to the second part of that question. Broadly, you use tropes to either satisfy or subvert expectations.
There is nothing wrong with satisfying expectations. If I go to a restaurant and order grilled salmon and they — surprise! — bring me short ribs, that’s not groovy. Getting what you want is awesome. For example, Aldi has a strong, graphically satisfying ad about cutting groceries that does just that. Cutting costs = cutting receipts. Cute. Memorable. Good branding. Hell, Charmin’s entire brand strategy at this point involves bears doing you-know-what in the woods, referencing a saying common across the English-speaking world. And it’s working.
But let’s face it — subverting is fun. We like re-imaginings in which Little Red Riding Hood kicks the wolf’s butt, or Lois rescues Superman, or trash shames litterers.
Use these chunks of cultural assumptions to assemble stuff people will recognize, then either satisfy that recognition or challenge it. And abracadabra! You have created a story that will resonate with your marketing audience.