Narrative, advertising, and the importance of storytelling in our time

By John Everett Millais – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Mattis. Original uploader was Rednblu, Public Domain,

From the earliest days of human history, we have been storytellers. Cultural norms have been created, reinforced, and transmitted to successive generations through stories. Before we began to use science to explain natural phenomenon, we used myths to make sense of the otherwise inexplicable.

Today, we don’t need a story to explain that when a hot air mass meets a cold air mass, we’re going to get turbulent winds, or worse. We don’t need a myth to explain how sun, rain, and soil make plants grow. But maybe we do need stories to remind us of our shared humanity. From parables in the Bible to myths from various cultures, storytellers showed the dangers of being greedy or selfish and the rewards of generosity and kindness. Is it a coincidence that the allegorical 7 deadly sins present human beings at their worst? Medieval morality plays used storytelling to instruct, often through vivid imagery and fear.

I began thinking about the importance of storytelling this past year, when political narratives became so ugly, and frankly so false. Then the Superbowl happened, and corporate America from Coca Cola to Budweiser told a decidedly different narrative from the divisive rhetoric I’d been hearing all year. I have to say, the 84 Lumber ad about the immigrant experience was a moving story, despite censorship. I loved the Audi ad and its message that women deserve equal pay. Good for you, corporate America, I kept thinking. Wow. This is great!

But in the back of my mind I kept hearing the old media truth, one that I taught my students when I taught Media Literacy: “Corporations are motivated by profit and do not care about you.” Just yesterday I asked my granddaughter why she was advertising Old Navy for free. She was confused by my question and answered “because I can?” She’s eleven and she is a cog in the corporate money machine. We all are. As consumers who buy beer, cars, lumber–everything being sold, we must not be misled by advertisers’ motives. Profit is the objective, and as cute as Ella’s pink shirt is, Old Navy hopes Ella’s friends will also want a shirt like hers. They’ll know exactly where to get it. Less “subliminal” than a t-shirt, Superbowl commercials are the most expensive television commercials of the year, and they are not created casually or without intent. As engaging as many of those Superbowl ads were, they were still engineered to sell. We must not forget that.

So what sells these days? If you’re paying any attention to the nation right now–grassroots protests, the women’s march, a sharp increase in political activism–you can conclude that what sells is standing up for what’s right. At least during the Superbowl, corporate America told the story that as Americans, our values are inclusive, not exclusive. The mode advertisers use is narrative. In particular Budweiser, Audi, 84 Lumber offered mini movies that engaged viewers as only a story can.

I like their stories, and I wonder if it matters who tells them? I would rather elected leaders told these stories and did not subvert truth for their own gains. I would rather those in power told these stories and kept them as sacred as the secret of fire. But they are not telling these stories. Therefore,  I am happy to have Budweiser remind us that our nation was built on the strength and determination of immigrants. I am happy that Coca Cola presented a visual story of our national diversity.

We need a national narrative that tells our true story: As Americans we value everyone and everyone deserves the American dream: security, health, and happiness. We value fair treatment and we reject self-serving abuses of power and wealth. We reject oligarchy. We embrace our collective wisdom and diversity. We are also a nation of laws.

I remember other stories too. Vanity and arrogance left the emperor exposed and vulnerable. David defeated Goliath because he was righteous. Ozymandias’ boastful tribute to his own greatness crumbled into oblivion.

I have hope that enough of us will tell what’s true and noble and bring light to darkness.

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One Response to Narrative, advertising, and the importance of storytelling in our time

  1. Kate Mura February 14, 2017 at 7:10 pm #

    The art image you selected complemented your essay beautifully. Yes, story tellers are powerful people to have around. Stories continue traditions within families, my favourite kind. As you indicated, other explain the unknown, offer lessons to emulate, and some point out the folly of travelling the wrong path. I believe that poetry does the same thing plus I believe that poets are the truth tellers and the vanguards of society. But that’s a topic for another essay!