The birth of narrative
You hear the word "narrative" a lot these days. Election narrative, party narrative, political narrative. Narrative Medicine, Narrative Law, Narrative Psychology. The list goes on—just Google it.
Then there's the Corporate Narrative, a Mississippi River of company narratives. It used to be called marketing, but these days we, the people with the dollar to spend, have gotten cranky about being treated like cattle. Now we're looking for personal relationships—dialogue, shared experience, a bedtime story. We want Match.com, only with brands.
Actually, just about nothing is as old as the narrative—we've been telling stories since we could sit round a fire. But if you believe Joseph Campbell, it's always the same plot. In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the screenwriter's bible, he says that stories from all over the world, down the ages, have stuck to a single basic theme, The Hero's Journey. It goes like this:
- A call to adventure—which the hero accepts or declines.
- A road of trials—on which the hero succeeds or fails.
- Achieving the goal or "boon"—resulting in important self-knowledge.
- A return to ordinary life—at which the hero succeeds or fails.
- Application of the boon—the knowledge used for a better world.
The Buddha, Moses, and Jesus stories follow this plot. So do the Simba and Neo stories in The Lion King and The Matrix, and an awful lot in between. This story arc, framed in a Three Act plot structure since the days of Aristotle, is hard-wired into us. It's about the pursuit of happiness, it's the American Dream. But it's been hijacked.
Where's the boon?
Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is one of only a handful of films ever to gross a billion dollars (already). It was inspired by a book of real originality, a Victorian opium dream with the footfall of a butterfly, so beloved it has never been out of print. These are things to be valued, but none of that made it to the screen.
We're so trained now that we know when the Opening Image transitions to the Inciting Incident. We see Plot Point 1 lead to Pinch 1 on the way to the Midpoint. We don't use these words, but we see it all the same—to kids it's "duh." But we've become so complacent that we trade off the meaning of a story for the cheap ride of the script. We trade Alice for Alice.
I don't begrudge Disney their billion. Or the use they'll make of the Alice idea to make billions more. I begrudge the way we pony up our dollar so business can turn value into a commodity, when the world is crying out for the reverse. I begrudge the fact that we don't care. And by the way, whatever happened to the genius who made Edward Scissorhands?
A sitcom has three acts of seven-to-eight minutes, each with three scenes. Every sitcom. In the first scene the protagonist encounters the primary conflict. In the second a new, lesser, conflict. In the third the primary conflict is developed and things start to unravel, up to the first commercial break.
Here comes Apple
Enter Mom with her Tide, from P & G—the company that invented the soap opera. When Mom faces those impossible grass stains it's the identical story arc. Mom—Hero—accepts challenge, travels road, gains knowledge, uses it for "good". Look at Ridley Scott's "1984," Apple's "revolutionary" commercial to launch the Macintosh computer. A young woman faces down the evil empire (IBM) and makes the world a better place.
Hollywood, TV, Madison Avenue. This is Narrative on an industrial scale. A narrative we've been spoonfed all our lives. A narrative that, in America at least, is pretty much singlehandedly funded by business. It has all the efficiencies of any other industry: scale, consistency, predictability. Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Narrative.
Big Hair, too
There's nothing wrong with The Hero's Journey—it's what makes us all one person, it's the story of us. What's wrong is this jackhammer repetition of it. We're exposed to it like a hostage strapped to a chair and force-fed amphetamines so that our eyes can never, ever, shut.
Sports media is The Journey writ large—real drama played out in close to real time—and riddled with corporate sub-plots. I was once in the pits after a NASCAR race at the Homestead-Miami track. Matt Kenseth, the Hero of a 500 lap Journey, staged a photo op for each sponsor. A new hat, jacket, and giant check for every logo on the car. A loop on endless repeat.
Just a comma in the brand narrative
In America we consume 250 billion hours of television a year. At 65 the average person has seen two million commercials. Millions are so hooked on TV that they over-satisfy the criteria for substance abuse as defined in the official psychiatric manual, says Rutgers University psychologist Rober Kubey.
We're addicted to the script. The soap, the sitcom, the movie, the sport, the ad. Infotainment, Edutainment, Eatertainment. We've lost the ability to process information any other way—look at our politics. We haggle over script deals instead of writing the twenty-first century.
For Americans, the Internet has now surpassed TV as the "most essential" medium, according to Arbitron and Edison Research. This is a crucial landmark, part of the swing to "small media" and a smaller, more meaningful narrative.
She knows your name, too
For most companies, caught off-balance by a customer suddenly able to avoid a commercial intrusion on their life's narrative, it's a dilemma. When your customer increasingly wears the pants in the media relationship, how do you raise awareness, promote products, and build loyalty? We tell our clients that you don't. You think about it differently. You under-promise and over-deliver.
When Virgin got into air travel, a jaded industry laughed up its sleeve. Now it looks at Virgin Atlantic Airways as the R&D department. Training, customer service innovation, a do-able sustainability manifesto, web-based CRM, brilliant PR. The brand understood the road experience so well, it ran advertising on the hotel porn channel.
That's a story. Not a script.
Graham Button is a partner at Genesis, a brand, strategy and communications consultancy based in Denver. He is a writer from London who has spent more than 25 years in the advertising world, working for agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto and finally New York, where he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide. Graham has created brand platforms for companies as diverse as global beverage giant Diageo (managing a stable of brands including Captain Morgan Rums), Kaiser Permanente Health Plans, Colorado's Frontier Airlines, and Asian publisher South China Morning Post Newspapers. His work has won many awards internationally. Graham still creates work as a managing partner and creative director on Vail Resorts' flagship brands Vail and Beaver Creek. But he is equally at home in his role as strategist and planner.