Myth is Alive and Well in Business

by James Curcio on 2008-07-13 02:27:37
tags: branding, capitalism, fascism, media anthropology, myth

For Better or Worse:

Myth is Alive and Well in Business.
By James Curcio.

A quick look at the marketing for films, books and music shows the profound value that mythology has within the modern marketplace. This role is made more pervasive – and also more potentially beneficial or dangerous – as a result of the proliferation of instantaneous and virtually limitless communication mediums. Myth is so entrenched in the nature of business that it is often overlooked within the advertising rhetoric, however, the building of a mythology is the centerpiece of all effective branding.

Demonstration of this fact clearly requires an understanding both of the function of myth and the function of a brand. Prevalent misconceptions in both of these cases has clouded what should otherwise be a self-evident thesis, so the purpose of this brief white paper is to identify these misconceptions and clarify the position.

Myth is difficult to explain in a top down manner: it is not merely a story, for some stories are myths while others are not; it is not merely the beliefs of a people retold in stories or other media, because here again retold beliefs can be devoid of mythic resonance. Because of this complexity, for the time being let us define a few of these basic qualities through a quick backward glance at the function of myths past, before turning to ways that these qualities may or may not be applied within the modern business world.

The myths of the past, it is commonly held, were erroneous explanations for the way that the world is; fanciful stories, which, though colorful and interesting curiosities, surely bear no particular use to our “modern” lives. This interpretation mistakes the thing (fanciful stories and the accompanying art, etc.) for their function. As was later re-discovered by an expansive list of preeminent scholars and authors, including Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and many others previously mentioned in this work, these myths do not explain the world, rather, they explain our place within it. Thus, it is not a singular, universal and static truth that myths represent, but instead a personal, cultural one.

It is commonly accepted that mythology served a central role in the lives of humans up until a time when science and industry somehow stole away our myths. This belief itself serves as a myth which allows us to establish a place within history for ourselves. It is an internal narrative that defines us in Enlightenment terms. This is another role which myth serves: it defines who we are, and defines where we are in time; what role we serve, and what the nature of that role is. To the actor, the central question is often “what is my motivation?” The myth is our motive, or at least, it gives it voice. It may be encoded in any medium, but its defining characteristic is its psychological function.

When looking at stories, movies, or any other form of media, we may then ask- what qualifies as a myth? Perhaps first we should look at how we define anything. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explained the nature of meaning in language as a case of “family resemblance.” For example, sisters and brothers, mothers and daughters, and so on, can all share certain traits, not others, and yet be considered part of the same family. This, he proposed, was the nature of linguistic definition. Without this concept, we cannot properly define a game, for by any static qualifier certain activities which all of us consider games would be ruled out. This concept of definition contradicts the Aristotelean concepts of categories which most of us are still used to, where a thing is either A or B, and cannot exist as an amalgam of many different potentially contradictory components, often occupying a space somewhere between these various “pure” concepts. However, without a recognition of this fact, it is impossible to properly identify the various elements of myth at work within the diverse industries of the world today. We then lose site of how these elements can function in a piecemeal configuration, for example with elements of mythological thinking occurring within a seemingly unrelated milieu.

Granting these complexities, we may be led to wonder how myth functions in the world of business and industry. The function of a brand is to bring the story of a company to its market. When you look at a logo, read the copy on the back of a label, or watch an advertisement on television, it is commonly believed that the intent is to sell the product to you. Of course, in a sense, this is true. But what is actually being sold is the myth of the company- what that product or brand represents. The myth of Lexus doesn't sell you cars, it sells you luxury. Thus, it is of utmost importance for advertisers to understand the function of myth every bit as much as script writers. Like all other forms of myth, when accomplished successfully, the myth of a brand also brings with it a form of community. For example, witness the success of Apple's branding: those who identify as “Mac users” do so with an odd sense of pride, as if they are bucking the system by sharing in the aura of coolness that radiates from their stylish gear. Every element of this is mythological, including the system that they are bucking, represented by the doltish PC anthropomorphisized by John Hodgman in their recent advertising campaigns. (This general concept is explored at length in James B. Twitchell's book Ad Cult, containing many worthwhile thoughts on the mythological machinery of corporate advertising.)

As the business guru Peter Drucker demonstrates in his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, the marketing of a product is not a function of selling it, it is instead the means of fulfilling a need. In other words, the function of business itself is the fulfillment of human needs; the more ubiquitous the need, the more easy the marketing of that product will be if handled properly. The reason Lexus sells you luxury, rather than a car, is that, within the social apparatus of most industrialized nations, everyone needs a car. Lexus is identifying the niche of people with that need who they wish to call their own, and they are doing it through people who self identify with, or idolize, the myth of their brand.

As we have already explored, myths also fulfill a human need, experienced around the globe and throughout the history of our species: the need for meaning. The cultish following associated with certain properties is the result of this “mythic demand,” provided through characters and often fictional worlds which represent aspects of our inner psychology. To the fans, these worlds are often every bit as real as the phenomenal world of the everyday. Series such as Vertigo’s Sandman comics, or Serenity, which appeared first as a Fox television series, then a graphic novel and movie when the series was canceled, are examples of how the development of a general world and context in the mind of an audience can provide endless storytelling possibilities. They also demonstrate that the success of these stories are not based on the medium. This is of course quite apparent to anyone who considers the recent success of various comics franchises' almost overwhelming storming of Hollywood. Without which, surely Marvel wouldn't be able to afford to have their own film production studio, nor would San Diego's massively popular Comic Con be showing such a wholesale recognition of the mythic power of their media franchises, regardless of the medium that it is presented in.

The success of any media brand demands that it serve as an effective myth: whether Star Trek, Doctor Who, or Lost, to the true fans, these shows represent a pantheon with psychological, even ethical or cultural, significance. Further, one cannot overlook the Star Wars franchise; what began as a low-budget movie specifically steeped in mythic archetypes, has spawned a multimedia empire that today encompasses novels, comic books, television shows, video games, and a dizzying array of toys and ancillary products. In the case of the first three movies, the connection with myth was more than implicit: George Lucas was a friend of Joseph Campbell, and based the cosmology of the Star Wars world on the heroic cycle outlined in his books. These ancient traditions were simply made relevant to the concerns and aesthetic tastes of the modern age.

Despite the exciting creative possibilities posed by new media in regard to myth, they do not come without a price. The danger presented by the presence of myth in modern media is paramount. Though the propaganda of Fascist mythologies such as those of Nazis or the U.S.S.R. serve as the clearest example of these dangers, they exist in more subtle forms in the media produced by modern Capitalist states. Though media is ostensibly the watchdog of the government, both the government and media agencies of the Capitalist state are behooven to international corporations and their interests. As we already explored, the contextual nature of truth makes myth in media a potential form of national or even international coercion. The story of American politics and News media between the 1960's and the present serves as a cautionary tale of such possibilities.

There is no ensuring that mythological images, and the powerful psychological forces that they represent aren't being used by corporations for benevolent purposes, though they invariably present themselves in such a light. This myth of benevolence presents itself on a National level as well. American culture in particular has a need to present itself as a benevolent superpower, leading the rest of the world into an Enlightened era of growth and commerce. This is not unlike Britain's Empire, upon which the sun never set. In both cases the hubris exhibited was not merely of capacity, but more importantly, more catastrophically, it represents the rigid and wholesale self-congratulation of a myth that has so overshadowed reality that the two share nothing in common.

However, many countries integrate elements of America's capitalism without bringing its culture along with it. Samuel P. Huntington explores this fact in great detail in his book The Clash of Civilizations, in which he provides both the myth of the New American Century, where we are approaching integration and the ascension of the American nation, contrasted with the myth held by most of the rest of the world, that America is in fact in decline and its contribution to the ascension of other nations and state unions will take the form of the co-opted systems of commerce and government we developed. These systems will nevertheless grow in truly unprecedented ways within non-Western cultural soil.

This amalgam presents some very interesting possibilities for the future of Asian capitalism, though at the same time we mustn't forget that in times past, Asian nations seem to have no cultural fear of appearing tyrannical, though no more or less so in reality. Thus, we will likely see the myths of the brand developing in unexpected ways as the various elements of these cultures blend and come into conflict with one another, and it is unlikely that these forms will be clear of malevolence and oppression.

About the author:

James Curcio has been consciously dedicated to the production and analysis of modern myths since the age of sixteen, and subconsciously arguably since birth. This exploration has taken the form of collaborative novels (Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning in 2007, Join My Cult! in 2004), essays on myth and culture (The Immanence of Myth, presently in development, “Living The Myth,” Generation Hex 2004, “Hillbilly Tantra” in Magic On The Edge in 2005, and “Dying Gods” in Lemon Puppy, in 2003), Internet “round-table” musical albums and podcasts,(subQtaneous: Some Still Despair In A Prozac Nation in 2005, Babalon's Descent in 2001 and posthumous Dreams And Reflections in 2005, Bedtime Stories With The Antichrist in 2004-2005 and The G-Spot in 2005-2006), and various art and media collectives. Most recently, he is co-founder of Mythos Media.