Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

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Pride Week and Shaking Shit Up

Over the weekend, pride parades happened across the country, including those mid-sized cities in parts of the country that aren’t necessarily associated with progressive views. Included in that mix was Indianapolis. Oh, how things have changed. The first parade in Indianapolis started in 2005 and lasted a total of 15 minutes. It is now one of the largest pride festivals in this part of the country. Today, people pour in from all over the Midwest to celebrate Circle City Pride week. The parade itself is more than two hours long, with over 100 floats and groups involved. The event has grown so much that it had to be moved to Military Park, the premiere spot downtown for festivals. And while official numbers aren’t in yet, the events on Saturday are estimated to have brought in well over 100K attendances – not bad for state that is too often associated with corn, hyper-conservative ideology, and Mike Pence.

In a world where political and cultural divisions are seemingly at an all-time high, brands are increasingly held accountable for their stance on the political and social issues, whether speaking directly to the LGBTQ community or the broader population in general. Why? Because, quite simply, for the growing majority of people in the US, views on issues of equality are changing, particularly among the young. According to a Google Consumer Survey from August of 2014, over 45% of consumers under 35 years old say they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBTQ-friendly company. 54% also say they’d choose an equality-focused brand over a competitor. While the data is several years old, it’s probably safe to assume those numbers have done nothing but tick upward.

Equally important as to why brands need an active voice is to “shake shit up”, as one attendee told me. Statistically, we are becoming a more inclusive society. However, in the last year, purveyors of hate have grown emboldened. At the same time the pride march was going on, anti-Muslim protests were happening in 28 cities, including Indianapolis. While they couldn’t muster more than 75-100 followers, they were present and the threats were both clear and vocal. Taking a stand in support of the LGBTQ community does more than promote your good intentions, it demonstrates solidarity in the face of evil.

Despite backlash from groups that threaten to boycott them (or worse), more and more brands are responding with messages of inclusion, equality, and diversity. From Burger King to Hilton Hotels to Chase, we are seeing the faces of people that simply wouldn’t have been part of the equation in the past.

Perhaps more important than the messaging is that these companies now have a presence at events like those in Indy and across the country. Delta, Salesforce, Lilly and a host of other companies are sponsors and allies. Even Texas Roadhouse had a presence, handing out peanuts to munch.  All of this would have been unlikely a decade ago.  The cynic would point to it being a simple, calculated matter of cold, hard cash. After all, LGBTQ consumers have a buying power of about $884 billion, according to a study done by Witeck Communications. But we believe there is more to it than capitalizing on an event.  This shift on the part of brands is about the nature of change – we are seeing a type of evolution unfolding. Ideas, like species, adapt or die. For the former, the world becomes a brighter place, for the latter, change means eventual extinction. Brands can either adapt to this changing social landscape or become irrelevant. Perhaps more damning, they can come to be seen as repressive, threatening, or even dangerous.

As expectations for greater social responsibility from brands grow, it is tempting for marketers to take advantage of the situation, but there’s a fine line between what people see as support vs. pandering. A brand needs to ensure the values that underscore the its purpose are reflected in a way that isn’t opportunistic. It has to actively be part of a cultural conversation based on its purpose and this is precisely what the people in the region saw over the weekend. Increasingly, we are becoming a culture that thrives on inclusion. It may not feel like it at times, but the fact is that the nation as a whole is embracing acceptance and diversity in spite of a shrinking but highly vocal minority. When it comes to social issues at least, the blue dots in a sea of red are growing and the culture is becoming more welcoming. This is something we saw in the most meaningful of ways last weekend.

Pride celebrations in small, medium, and large cities across the US, and indeed the world, last week signals a permanent, meaningful cultural shift. We as a species still have a long way to go, but progress is being made.  And this is where brands affect change. Whether you’re selling soda in Columbus, hotel space in Montana, or mutual funds in Atlanta, a brand needs to create culture as well as reflect it.