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Breaking the Fourth Wall

Fourth wall (n.) – when a character in a story tells the reader that they know they are a character in a story, hence breaking the “wall” between the actor and audience

An approach best known for its use in films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fight Club, American Psycho, Annie Hall, and Amélie, the act of “breaking the fourth wall” dates back to the days of William Shakespeare and ancient Greek theater. Though originally criticized in television and used sparingly, this approach has been parodied in TV shows, like 30 Rock and has been adapted by recent creative works, such as Netflix’s House of Cards.

Cheerios took this approach with its recently released commercial, lovingly titled #HowToDad, to announce their new peanut butter flavor. However, Cheerios is hardly the first brand to take this approach. Following in the footsteps of their Hollywood counterparts over the past few years, brands including Dollar Shave ClubOld SpiceCadillac, and Honda have leveraged this storytelling style in their commercial video content.

But with what intention? While in some cases, this approach can remove the audience from the experience, in others, it can bring the audience in and capture their undivided attention.

“Breaking the fourth wall” allows an actor to make direct eye contact with the camera (and audience), which can be quite powerful in advertising. There’s something intuitive about eye contact — not only does it immediately captivate the attention of an audience, but it can help heighten emotion and sense of drama between actor and audience. Often, it’s used to help the audience identify with a character and their thoughts or feelings. It can help bridge that sense of “knowing,” helping the audience “side with” an actor.

Brands hoping to develop a direct connection between actor and audience, at least in video, should consider this approach as a way of bridging the gap between a traditional model of one-way conversation and social dialogue. While the audience may not be able to respond, “breaking the fourth wall” can captivate an audience and engage them in ways traditionally storytelling doesn’t, or perhaps can’t.