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How five-act structure make ads more effective

Can an ad made for just £50 deliver more effectively than a John Lewis advert featuring Elton John and costing £7m? Yes. If you use story effectively, budget doesn’t matter. We break two ads into five acts to show why.

It may not surprise you to hear that a John Lewis Christmas ad was crowned Youtube’s top festive advert two years running. That ad was 2018’s The Boy and the Piano, a £7m production featuring Elton John.

But the same Christmas, a touching seasonal video from filmmaker Phil Beastall – Love is a Gift – made for less than £50 was hailed ‘better than the John Lewis campaign’.

We know that budget doesn’t matter – it’s all about how you deliver story. So we broke each advert down into its five acts to see which one has a stronger story structure.

The Five Act Structure of Love Is A Gift by Phil Beastall

This is a beautifully structured short film, with a clear archetypal shape:

Act One –Chris lives in a modest house – and he is counting off the days on a calendar. It’s the first of December. He is a diligent and serious man. This is his ordinary world.

Inciting incident – He prepares for Christmas – and does so with great care – it must mean a lot to him.

Act Two – Chris continues to live his life, crossing days off the calendar. Christmas gets closer.

Act Three – He’s impatient for December 25th to arrive, and keeps looking at the calendar.

Midpoint – The reveal of the ‘truth’ – Chris is waiting to open a present. It seems that the present is important to him.

Turning point – Christmas Eve.  Something is keeping him awake at night – he clearly has something on his mind. He seems sad and preoccupied.

Act Four – It’s Christmas Day finally. And we discover what is inside the present. An audio tape with a message from his mother. Chris reacts to her voice and becomes emotional.

Worst Point – We discover that his mother has passed away, and this is the last tape she made for him. She bids him a final farewell.

Act Five – Chris’s mother has a final message for him – she loves him very much, and will always be his mum. She tells him that the happiest day of her life was the day she gave birth to him. A tearful Chris smiles …

So, now we move on to:

The Five Act Structure of The Boy and the Piano

This one isn’t quite as clear in its story-telling. The idea is very simple – modern Elton John thinks back across his life to where it all started:

Act One – Elton John sits at a piano in a house. There’s something melancholy about this situation. He tentatively plays a note … This is his ordinary world.

Inciting incident – A thought occurs to Elton, and he begins to play ‘Your Song’ …

Act Two – We flashback to Elton, when he was a little younger.  He plays ‘Your Song’ to a packed theatre.

Act Three – We flashback in time through increasingly younger Elton Johns. His persona and performance become increasingly more flamboyant.

Midpoint – We reach a teen Elton John playing the piano in a pub – he seems to have found his ‘mission in life’ – as he entertains the crowds.

Turning point – Eventually, we reach Elton John at school where he plays in a school concert in front of a proud mother.

Act Four – The youngest EJ yet, probably six years old, races downstairs on Christmas Day – to be presented with the gift of a piano.

Worst Point – This six-year-old EJ has to make a choice – should he play the piano or not? His finger hovers above the piano key …

Act Five – He presses the piano key – decision made. And we cut back to modern EJ – delighted that he made the right decision all those years ago. Still slightly melancholy, he smiles and closes the piano lid.


Both ads have their charms, but Love is a Gift wins the story-structure test and proves that you don’t need a big budget to connect with an audience or customers – you just need an engaging story. Which advert do you prefer?

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