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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Myth Cycles and the Ad

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 not 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/or 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 hero/heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she/he not only vanquishes the problem/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. Why do 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.

Myths, the Hero and Design

In a world of stripped of rites of passage, where we no longer move through the cycle of separation, initiation and return, where the daily expression of the journey of discovery is almost null, shopping becomes a surrogate for the search for meaning. It is by no means the only expression of it, of course, but it is a defining element of who we are, whether we are engaged in it or reaction to and rejecting it.  Consumption and the act of shopping have become a postmodern replacement for the lessons learned through folktales and through myths.  A hero in myth ventures forth from the world of common day into a world of supernatural wonder: the hero comes back from the journey with the power to bestow boons upon others.  Shopping is the hunt, the religious experience, the co-created ritual story telling in a postmodern world.  But we crave something less superficial than simple consumption, we crave engagement.  It isn’t always about simply getting things – that’s a simple matter of a few clicks.  It is increasingly used as an expression of self and the quest for cultural, shared meaning that is growing harder to find.  Social media and reality TV have changed us to a voyeuristic population, but these are windows into the mundane or the freakish, not windows into the collective dreams we once shared around the camp fire.

Strange as it may sound, myths matter to design, marketing and brand development.  They align our world at speak to the collective dream.  A dream is the personalized myth; myth is the dream depersonalized. And it is at that level that a brand can manifest itself as a character in the storyline of a person’s life.

The characters we identify with in myths, folktales, etc. are the primordial self, the bold statement of the relationship between the person, society and the cosmos.  The principle work of the person wrapped up in the universal storyline of the human condition writ large is to retreat from the world of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties of being really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what Jung called the “archetypal image.” Steve Jobs and the Apple story represent the archetypal hero; from the birth of the company in a garage, to the struggle against the monolithic beast, to exile and the valiant return. And upon his return he is transformed into the magician, the sage with the experience and vision to transform his world and the lives of all the people he touches.  We build shrines to heroes because they are more than the local boy done good; they spread a message, an image, a lesson that goes beyond the local to the universal.  They speak to the absolute conditions of the human condition. And that means that like their brands, the spaces in which we sell our goods are bound, or should be, by archetypal models as well.

If we speak to archetypes when constructing a retail space, we do more than produce a nice experience. We create an expression of the deeper elements of what it means to be human in a world where dangers are ambiguous and the thrill of discovery is subservient to the soccer practice and the gas bill. But shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and meaning that underscores the need to purify, change and be reborn.

By transforming the retail space into an archetypal motif, shoppers come to see it as a focal point in their lives.  At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. Settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame. The visible layout of the space needs to reflect cognitive and cultural frames that allow people to construct and revisit stories, the goal being to produce visceral responses that can’t be ignored or denied. Products need to be designed and displayed in such a way as to make them visually reverential.

The retail environment becomes the fire around which we gather to take part in the spoils of the hunt. Black Friday becomes the story of cattle raid of Ulster.  The quinceanera is Cinderella. Buying a home is the descent into the underworld and the trial of the guardians at the gate. Esoteric as it sounds, this sort of thing has ramifications for how you design, be it an object, a space or a message.  It means thinking of the store front or the online portal as a liminal space where people learn something transformational is about to take place.  It means providing customers with a stage upon which to act out a role rather than simply buy a product, which has implications for lighting design, space between shelves, fixture height, even the glass in the windows. It has implications for how we define loyalty programs and how we interact with our customers – how do you continue the story a week after they leave the store?  How do you create and sustain communities? How do you create the sensation of the story telling around the hearth when people are distributed over vast areas?  All of this means far more than deciding whether or not to use an end-cap to sell your batteries, your beer, your socks, etc.