Myth's central importance does not end with our art
or religions. It is not solely a dusty world of broken clay pots and tablets
written in dead languages. Our myths determine how we engage with the world,
how we enter into it. How we treat ourselves and one another. Far from being
archaic relics of the past, myths will determine our future. Even if we are
unaware of them, they will continue to affect us.
The advertising used to disseminate films, books and music
shows the profound value that mythology has within modern markets. You just
need to know what you're looking for. However, it does not end with the entertainment industry. A
brand, any brand in an increasingly interactive media environment, is
This role is made all the more pervasive thanks to the
proliferation of instantaneous and virtually limitless communication mediums.
Whether it is beneficial or dangerous is another matter entirely.
Despite this, myth is so entrenched in the nature of business
that it is often overlooked within the advertising rhetoric of capitalism, even
if the building of a mythology is the centerpiece of all effective branding.
Though the commercialization of desire and fear, and creation of "false needs"
is essentially coercive, it is the long-term cultural effects that must be
considered once we understand the extent to which marketing and advertising are
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 article is to identify these
misconceptions and clarify our 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.
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, Karl Kerenyi, etc. 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, even if myths may point to the common ground between us
It is generally accepted that mythology served a central role
in the lives of humans up until a time when science and industry somehow stole
away or otherwise replaced 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, and along a
timeline of progress as defined by this mythic project of the age of reason.
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 underlies our motive, or at least, it gives it voice. It
may be encoded in any medium, but its defining characteristic is its
When looking at stories, movies, or any other form of media,
we may then once again 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 Aristotelian
categories 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, occupying a space somewhere between these various "pure" concepts.
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 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 consider 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. It is to engage the audience in a way where,
ideally, a product or service becomes firmly lodged in he habitual behavior and
thinking of a consumer. In earlier advertising, this was often conveyed through
a narrative in a traditional sense. Though this isn't a strict rule. Consider Hal
Riney's work for Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign, "Morning In America," which painted idyllic narratives for
The language of advertising has morphed into something more
visceral than a fully developed narrative, so that McDonald's for instance
merely conveys the message "I'm lovin' it," alongside images of a breakfast
sandwich in pleasant morning light. It presents an image of generic pleasant
associations, lacking a narrator: the would-be narrator, of course, is the
customer. As consumer "resistance" to advertising grows, there is an increasing
need to build "engagement" with an audience, which means developing involved
narratives that actually integrate with people's lives.
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. More specifically, it sells a myth of luxury that you can
participate with if you buy into it. (Literally.) Thus, it is of utmost
importance for advertisers to understand the function of myth every bit as much
as script writers. All products and their associated myths – people in
advertising speak fairly openly about developing the "story" of the brand,
which is the brand's myth — have to find a home within the lives and thoughts
of the market. We use branded products
to identify ourselves, if a company can leverage mind-share of that ideal.
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 sales in a traditional sense. 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.
Of course this "need" is something that is re-enforced by a
culture and industry alike. Certainly, everyone "needs" a car in a nation of
detached suburbs, traffic jams, and so on. But these things arose alongside the
rise of the automobile and petroleum industries. 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.
Myths also fulfill as well as direct 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, Lord of the Rings, and etc are all
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 quite apparent to anyone who considers the recent
success of various comics franchises' almost overwhelming storming of
Hollywood. Without which, surely Marvel wouldn't 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.
of entertainment can be considered a device for inducing a neurological
reaction. Entertainment is a delivery system for the stimulus of certain
neurotransmitters; for stimulus of certain parts of the brain. Stimulus,
reward. Some of us are fear or adrenaline junkies. Some get off on falling in
love or crying in an alley. To an extent, our brains mistake our own situation
for that of the fictional characters projected on the wall, just as Plato had feared.
centuries, storytellers have experimented to find which arrays of symbols and
images induce the desired responses reliably. They usually think of the desired
response as 'an agreeable sentimental feeling' or 'a thrill' of one kind or
another. But what they are doing is organizing symbols to create neurological
reactions. (Edge Trends, Shirley.) There is nothing inherently or
morally wrong with this fact. Greek tragedy depends on the same basic mechanism
as modern theater. "Politics devoid of statesmanship is just theater," said
Aaron Sorkin through the mouth of fictional Chief of Staff Leo Mcgarry.
and politics are then, to an extent, merely extensions of psychology.
Image by exfordy, courtesy of Creative Commons license.