by Olly Lawer

In the days when I was first marvelling at the explainer videos (AKA animated videos) coming out of America, I would deconstruct and reconstruct their animations to see if there was a ‘winning formula’.

At the time, I was so mesmerised by the nature of them (after all UK explainer videos still came in the form of long, boring corporate films), that at first I didn’t notice a pattern forming.

A huge proportion of American explainer videos were led by a character and usually started in the same vein, “Meet Bill/Sally/Tyler/Brian…”. A problem was then presented “Maggie finds excel spreadsheets boring and time consuming”, followed by a very bold statement (the kind you’d expect to see in star-spangled flashing lights) – “Our product WILL make you money/save you time/make you sexier than sexy…” etc.

Character design by Martin Eke

Character design by Martin Eke

Aside from clear ‘Americanisms’ in this approach, what interested me most was the relationship the viewer has with the character.

I’ve always been a curious soul and soon my head started buzzing with questions. How do character and non character animations compare? How do different types of characters relate to audiences? What ‘feel’ does a character bring to an animation? How does a character change the perception of a brand?

I’ve been a salesman in some form or other all my life. I still am, although now I sell ideas, not widgets or insurance. I was always taught that no matter what you’re selling, you always start with an empathy builder. Quite simply, you’re empathising with the prospective client i.e. “Ah, yes it’s annoying on dating sites when you get messaged by people you don’t fancy” – the product/service you’re selling in this case would be the delightful Tinder.

When you place a character in an animation and relate them to the client’s perceived ‘problem’ (which you’re about to ‘solve’ with your product/service), something very interesting happens. What you’re saying is “Hey prospective client, this is meant to be you”, and this can be dangerous.

One of the unique abilities of animation is a kind of detached, yet emotive explanation of the product/service. This works very well and is one of the main reasons animation often trumps corporate videos – you’re not judging the interviewee on their dress sense, or way they talk, or the background in shot, you’re concentrating on the message being put across instead. The visuals then complement the script (or replace parts of the script entirely), forming an interesting and informative explainer video.

However, when you introduce a character that represents the viewer, the audience often personify themselves in that character. This is surely what you’re going for though, right? It’s an empathy builder after all.

If the viewer can ‘see themselves’ as the character then great, move on to explaining the product/service. If the viewer can’t or doesn’t like what they see in the character, you’re immediately swimming against the current.

The question is, is it worth taking the risk? Does a relatable character have benefits over a non character driven animation?

I’m yet to be shown an animation that uses characters to build empathy by directly personifying the viewer that trumps a non character animation, so it becomes double the risk for half the reward. Also, many of the character based animations in this style start to erode the brand ‘feel’ and ‘tone’, becoming like every other character animation.

Just to be clear, I’m not rubbishing the use of characters in animations – on the contrary, I think there has been some wonderful use of characters in animations.

The Nike, Girl Effect is a great example. Here, the character doesn’t represent the viewer, building empathy with the audience in a way that isn’t meant to be personified.

This is very different to ‘you are Bill and have a problem we can solve’. Translated it’s ‘here is Bill and we want you to understand his problem and help us solve it together’.

In summary, I think characters can work really nicely in explainer videos where they’re not trying to represent the audience, are or done in a quintessentially British tongue in cheek way.

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