Mythology of Business Part 1: The Veil of Ignorance


This is part 1 of an excerpted series for Reality Sandwich from the upcoming anthology The Immanence of Myth published by Weaponized.  


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 myth.

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 myth.

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 all.

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 psychological function.

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 viewer.

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.

Any form 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.

Over the 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.

Economics and politics are then, to an extent, merely extensions of psychology.


Image by exfordy, courtesy of Creative Commons license.