A title sequence is to a TV show what a logo or jingle is for a product. The best ones elicit a sort of Pavlovian response that assures viewers “This is going to be good.” The best of these mini-sequences evokes the essence of a show in just a few seconds—quite a feat. Advertisers constantly in search of more effective ways to engage consumers can learn from this form of economic storytelling.
Interest in the title sequence resurfaced recently when Screen Smart took a deep dive into the subject last month, as reported in Adweek. In a nearly seven-minute YouTube video, the publication analyzed the openings for Netflix’s Stranger Things, HBO’s The Sopranos, and AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men, among others. One of the analysis’ more interesting observations is that title sequences tend to reflect the creative approach of the TV shows they open.
The opening for American Horror Story, for instance, throws creepy images at the viewer in quick succession, while Twin Peaks opts for a slower pace and establishes the setting as the glue for the show’s action. “The title sequence acts as a communication device that helps convey instant communication to an audience that helps further drift us into its world,” says Ryan Hollinger, the video’s narrator. This means skilled producers can tell complex stories in just 30 seconds or so.
The appreciation for title sequences represents a return to form. Lavish opening sequences were the norm in the 1970s and 80s—The New York Times noted that the titles for Cheers, for instance, ran 60 seconds. But in recent years, many sequences have been shortened to save precious airtime. As The Wall Street Journal recently put it, “On many shows, especially sitcoms, main titles now flash by in about five seconds.”
Takeaways for Advertisers
Like advertisers, TV producers often need to convey a complex brand essence in under a minute. Here are a few lessons from TV producers’ efforts that marketers can apply to their own communications:
- Pay attention to tone: More than anything else, title sequences are exercises in establishing a tone. Stranger Things, for example, uses a retro Stephen King-like font that evokes both nostalgia and—because the letters are coming together—the process of solving a mystery. What is the tone of your brand, and how can you convey it visually in a way that will resonate with your target audience?
- Use music: As Hollinger notes, “the right song has a way of resonating with our senses and triggering our memories when we hear it in the future.” With such a strong tie to our memories, a positive experience with the right music can incite brand loyalty.
- Answer the question “What is this about?” With its jump cuts and macabre imagery, the title sequence for American Horror Story indicates the show is clearly meant to be scary. Breaking Bad’s opener telegraphs protagonist Walter White’s knowledge of chemistry by employing the periodic table. What is your brand about? Like these producers, you should be able to provide a one- to two-word description of your brand via visuals and sound.
- Use the short format as a challenge to your creativity: Title sequences can’t run very long, so creators have to work harder to get their points across. This enforced limitation has led to brilliant openings. Similarly, those producing 30-second ads could even imagine themselves selling a show rather than a product. In that case, what kind of show are you selling? This exercise can help focus the creative approach.