The 1982 hit, “I Melt With You,” by Modern English was the kind of fractured love song that appealed to twenty-somethings finding their way in a new millennium. Growing up during the Cold War, having experienced the tumultuous 70s, and bearing the many sorrows of the Vietnam era produced a generation that understood the fragility of life and love. It evoked the kind of desperate passion one might experience hoping – with all the troubles in the world – that its final moments would find you in the arms of the person you most cherished. So, perhaps I’m just a bit more than cynical about the song appearing as the music bed for a Hershey’s commercial featuring mom and sis frolicking in a vat of melted chocolate.
As a former advertising copy writer, I’m all for plugging saleable goods. But the practice of co-opting radical tunes of an earlier generation for product promotion doesn’t sit very well with me. I have the same reaction to Santa guzzling a Coke and Mona Lisa smiling at me from a square of toilet paper. Is nothing sacred?
Apparently not. If Jonah Sachs is to be believed, even the epic tales of human history and traditional myth ought to be tapped into by marketers hoping to distinguish their brands from the multitude of others. “We live in a world that has lost its connection to its traditional myths,” he writes in Winning the Story Wars. So, we are looking for new ones; “we’re people, and that’s what people without myths do.” As a marketer you should “set out on your own unique hero’s journey to be heard.”
According to Sachs, human beings naturally seek meaningful stories. It’s part of our essential make-up. Long ago, the need was satisfied by storytellers passing along creation myths and hero tales. What is unique, according to Sachs, is that these stories have “remained surprisingly unchanged despite the thousands of years and mouths they’ve passed through.” Compare that to some bland advertising message you heard last week and can barely recall.
The problem, apparently, is that storytelling is broken. And, it’s broadcast media that broke it. To survive in the digital era, successful marketers must take charge of ancient stories and re-craft them using new social media that allows storyteller and audience to connect.
By “story,” Sachs means “a particular type of human communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview.” Using storytelling devices: conflict, good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, and a “single, compelling” moral or message, the marketer fashions a tale that is compelling enough to motivate people. “Today’s best marketers are creating cause and brand loyalty by telling stories that deliver a pattern of meaning for a society in need of just that.”
Using conservative broadcast personality Glenn Beck and progressive filmmaker Annie Leonard as his cases in point, Sachs attributes their success to an ability to shape public opinion. “The drama playing out between [them] is part of the ancient pattern of powerful worldviews colliding.”
Everybody loves a good drama. But, according to Sachs, we don’t just love it. We need it. The media savvy Becks and Leonards of the world supply it to a public hungering for the deeper meaning that traditional stories used to supply.
In our media-saturated environment, overflowing with brand messages, product pitches, election season attack ads, and movies designed for product tie-ins, our most powerful storytellers are no longer shamans, priests, presidents, or generals. [They] work at Pixar, creating animations about living cars that will become the year’s hottest holiday gift items; at Starbucks, making an easy emotional connection for you with a coffee farmer in Nicaragua…
Not to mention, the media pundits and campaign managers weaving stories of mythical proportions about this year’s presidential candidates.
So why is it called The Story Wars? Because “knowing that people will leave their families, risk death and kill to live out or defend a story tells you how powerful stories can be in moving us to action.”
And everyone knows, whoever tells the best story wins. FBN