"Show, Don't Tell" is a guiding principle of storytelling.
There's a scene in the film Sorry to Bother You where the protagonist goes to a gas station booth, and asks them to put 40 cents on their pump. This shows how desperately broke this person is. Now imagine that same character saying: "Man, I'm broke." This doesn't have the same impact because it's open to interpretation. Depending on the person's circumstances, $500, $50 or $5 in their bank account could be the point where they say they're broke.
When people talk about themselves or a product, we tend to be skeptical. Imagine you're on a date with a guy who says they're nice, caring, reliable, and a feminist ally. I think most people will be skeptical, and look for cues to prove or disprove their bold statement. Maybe it's how they treat service people, their friends, their family, or their choice of words when speaking. We do this because those are external things we can use to come to our own conclusions.
We don't like to be sold to.
There are phenomenal sales people whose energy makes you believe them, but I think it has to come from a genuine want to help out. I think charisma has its limits if a person doesn't want to buy what they're being sold.
What is the trailer equivalent of telling and not showing? Trailers with a lot of "hype" title cards or narration are the first thing I think of. I talked about these trailers in my Less is More post, but let's look at those trailers again.
A trailer with title cards to hype you up is likely not going to succeed in the slightest unless you're already invested in the property for other reasons. Imagine these title cards in a trailer:
TONS OF AMAZING CONTENT!
THE BEST BATTLE ROYALE GAME EVER!
Would any of those get you excited? Probably not. This is why it's not good to have this style of writing in a trailer's title cards. Accolades trailers feel less gross because they quote other people instead of using their own words to boost themselves. It's only natural to vet an opinion from someone we believe has no self interest in saying a good thing.
Now look at another trailer making a very hard sell.
"Do you like awesome things that are awesome?"
"You gotta play this game, dude. It's freggin' cool, and crazy addictive. Like, popping bubble wrap addictive."
Those lines finish up around 20 seconds into the trailer. If you make it all the way through the trailer, I'm sorry, you must feel awful. You have an awful feeling in you, and you definitely don't feel good about buying Mighty No. 9. Notably, trailer has an ABYSMAL like/dislike ratio on YouTube.
This trailer insulted your intelligence.
This trailer believes it will convince people to buy the game; it doesn't think much of you. It thinks: "If I tell people the game is addictive, they'll believe me" and that's insulting. This is probably the exact feeling we'd have after hearing that guy explain to us how nice, caring and reliable he is.
Also, when a piece of advertising tells you something subjective like “This is crazy addicting!” or “You’ll love this!” I think it’s in our nature to want to try to challenge that sort of statement. This puts you in an adversarial relationship with the trailer.
So, how DO we show and not tell in a trailer?
This fits nicely into my post about depicting player verbs. The trailer needs to show what is cool in a way for the audience to understand. If it shows the cause and we understand the effect is interesting, we form our own ideas. If we walk through the door ourselves, we earned the fact we're on the other side. We generally feel more attached to our own thoughts and ideas than those of others.
It's like being offered the choice between two restaurants instead of being told you have to go to one. You feel like you made a choice, and it was your own decision. The person who offered the choice also wins because they're curated the choices based on their own preference.
Watch this announcement trailer for "Skin Deep" by Blendo Games
The first shot indicates the player has a gun, the second shot shows if they crawl around air ducts, eventually they'll sneeze, then it cuts away.
What conclusions can we draw from that?
Here's what I gathered: In the game, the player has to avoid sneezing, because sneezing will reveal their location to the enemy, which means part of the game is being stealthy! The trailer didn't even show the result of the sneeze, but I understood the implications, and that's exciting especially because I did all that thinking on our own. Every time this trailer says “SKIN DEEP” it’s saying “That’s the idea, I don’t need to say any more about it” this shows confidence in the strength of the ideas, and also makes the trailer nice and snappy.
Look at this trailer for Super Mario Odyssey. The trailer shows us a lot of instances of Mario using his hat to navigate the world, and hop inside of bodies. Suddenly we wonder: "What else can Mario possess, and what can he do when he's in there!? Maybe he can throw hammers if he possesses Hammer throwing koopas, or destroy things as a bullet bill. Whoa!"
Now imagine if the trailer had a narrator saying:
"Check it out, Mario has this hat; it's a really awesome hat. He can like, throw it at things. Then he possesses the things that he threw the hat at, then HE IS THE THING, and then he can use their powers to traverse the world and destroy enemies."
That would not be as effective; it doesn't respect the intelligence of the audience enough to assume they can see that without the narration breaking down every moment.
For some additional thoughts on respecting the intelligence of the audience, I recommend this video by Lessons From the Screenplay where he talks about 2+2 storytelling, a term used by Andrew Stanton, the director of Wall-E.
A good trailer finds the cool things, shows them in the best possible light, and leaves it up to the audience to decide what they think. If you respect the intelligence of the audience, there's no guarantee they'll return that respect, but if you DISRESPECT their intelligence, you're almost guaranteed to leave a bad taste in their mouth, and they will not like it.