Alexina Seedorf

Contributed by Alexina Seedorf

July 11, 2012



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Story Wars Q&A with Jonah, Part 1

Winning the Story Wars has officially hit the shelves!

A few of us Free Rangers (Amy, Melissa, and Allie) got together to pick Jonah’s brain on the basics of his book. Enjoy our conversation!

Amy: So this might seem like an obvious question, but why did you write the book?

The book gave me a way to highlight a very big story that is unfolding: Today’s culture is being built on marketing stories. Stories have always been cultural DNA. The intentions of society, our aspirations and beliefs are built into the stories that we tell and share with each other.

And, today, marketers are in control of our shared stories. The book is a way to give people a new lens through which to see how those forces operate in the world. The book invokes the mythology of the movie The Matrix, where you take the red pill and the whole world comes into focus in a completely new way—and you see what’s really behind it. That was my goal in writing the book—to reveal a hidden but important story that I believe is changing our lives.

Allie: What makes storytelling particularly important right now?

Storytelling today is badly broken. Not only are marketers in crisis, but our world is in crisis, too. Stories that once created a sense of shared purpose, through things like religion and mythology, have faded. They’ve been replaced by stories that divide and separate us, and create cultural confusion and conflict. The world is barreling into the future—in an interconnected global community—yet we are mired in squabbles, with no apparent way forward. And I believe a lot of that has to do with the broken world of storytelling.

Melissa: What do you think are the most destructive stories out there right now that need to evolve?

Two of the biggest stories driving cultural development right now revolve around “nationalism” and “consumption”—these combine into the myth of the “citizen as consumer,” which was developed at a specific time for a specific purpose. In the post-War years, America was faced with an economic crisis. We were all geared up to make lots of stuff, too much, in fact. Yet thrifty, war-weary people weren’t buying enough of the stuff we were making. Marketers were called in to solve the problem, and they did, in a very clever way. Consumption became the highest expression of individual liberty and national pride.

But, in the long run, this new cultural myth of the “citizen consumer” creates deep anxiety and conflict. People end up building their identity and sense of self-worth around consumption. The practical drawbacks are many—from out-of-control consumer debt, to declining levels of national happiness, to lack of environmental sustainability. But there are also big cultural conflicts as well. To solve big issues, like sustainability and climate change, we have to give up part of our identity as the “citizen consumer” and find a new story. But that level of change is extremely difficult for people on such a large scale, especially when the myth has been part of our national identity for so long.

Clearly, the old solutions have stopped working and, from a cultural point of view, are now even working against us. But as long as we’re basing our sense of social progress and self-worth on a bad story, we’re going to keep facing problems in the future.

Allie: Free Range has always thought of itself as a storytelling agency, but in the book you call us marketers and say that lots of people who never thought of themselves as marketers should start claiming the title. Why the shift?

Let’s start by understanding how myths work. They aren’t a literal recounting of fact. They provide explanation for how the world works, as well as meaning and ritual—i.e., what you should do about it. What I discovered is that the one place in the modern world where we can find explanation, meaning, story and ritual all in the same place is in marketing.

It’s the last part that’s most important for marketers. Ritual gives the audience a way to act out the story out in their own lives. Every time a new product comes to the market we get a new explanation of how the world works and how we should live. Advertising may not be literal truth, but it informs our lives just as if it was real. And the easiest ritual to enact is to go out and buy a new product or service and become part of the story.

Amy: How does marketing push us to live and think about our lives in different ways?

In the book I use the iconic of image of the “Marlboro Man” to show how people can completely change the way they see themselves, their country and their own personal myth (including their masculinity), all based on what cigarette they choose to smoke. All are based on this marketing myth, and the appeal of a character that we need to remember is just fictional.

Then consider something like the “Real Beauty” campaign from Dove. In that campaign, the message is that you don’t need to be told what’s beautiful, or that some product is going to make you beautiful in the conventional sense. You already are beautiful—just as you are.

The first marketing myth tells you that you need this product to make yourself more masculine, or more American, or more ruggedly independent. I call this “inadequacy” marketing because without the product you are being told that you are inadequate in those respects. The second story, of Dove’s “Real Beauty,” goes in the opposite direction. It refuses to buy into inadequacy marketing and the myth of the “sanitized body,” which supports a lot of beauty marketing: the myth that your body needs to be altered before it can become beautiful. Dove’s campaign attacks inadequacy; it puts the audience in the heroic role of asserting their beauty, while smashing the myth that they can’t be beautiful just by themselves.

So, as we are all called upon by marketers to participate in the stories they are telling—and the myths they are creating—we all need to be very educated about what’s really behind the stories we’re being asked to participate in and share. If we can understand why that information is being provided in the way it is (i.e., what it’s trying to illustrate about how the world works, and what values that implies about the person who’s trying to spread that idea), I think we can choose more wisely where and how we engage.

Melissa: You say in the book that we have entered a new “Digitoral Era” and that we all (audience members) have more power in this new era. Can you explain?

Everyone with a story to tell, or a product to sell, is now trying to figure out how to harness the power of crowd-sourcing—i.e., a world where stories and messages are shared among a large group of people, well beyond the marketer’s control. In a sense, this is very like the oral traditions of the past, where people passed information peer-to-peer rather than consumed it through broadcast.

In oral traditions, the most powerful, engaging and enduring stories have always bee those that put the audience in the role of hero, like in the “Real Beauty” campaign. There is an approach for effective mythmaking in this kind of world. It requires explanation, meaning, symbolism and ritual. Anyone with a story or a message can use this formula to engage his target audience.

Amy: One of the most interesting things you’ve done in the book is pull case studies from every slice of the political spectrum. Can you reiterate your analysis of the Occupy movements and the Tea Party – what story elements do these polar opposite movements share?

I think some of the best examples are the Occupy and Tea Party movements. In both cases, people are responding to the fraying of the myth of the “American Dream,” which is an incredibly powerful and resonant myth on the right and the left. Today, the idea that the American dream is no longer viable for a large segment of the country brings up a lot of anger for a lot of people. They want to know: who killed the dream?

The Occupy and Tea Party movements both weave compelling myths around powerful special interests who killed the American Dream. Their narratives are contradictory, but each movement offers its audience a powerful story—with the audience in the role of the hero—to help them make sense of this new world. Each movement also offers rituals that the audience can use in their daily lives to fight back against those evil, powerful special interests. The stories are told and re-told, the rituals shared over and over, binding people together in a community built on common values and beliefs.

That is the power of effective myth making and storytelling. It is up to the audience to fully vet the story being told, assess its truthfulness and then consent to participation and sharing. That’s why it is in our own best interest to know how myths work—otherwise we risk participating in something we don’t fully understand.