One thing every Hero does is define their Antagonist – the
precise nature of the obstacle they must overcome. The Hero has a lot of
leeway here, but because our point of view is partially determined by our past,
every Hero has blind spots
Take the current economic crisis. If you are a Wall Street
Insider you are likely to view the problem as one of “toxic loans”. It is the
bad loans you made that are keeping up at night. What do you do about them? You
get rid of them. Sell them to some sucker who doesn’t realize how toxic they
are. And if you’re a Wall Street Insider who not so coincidentally happens to
be the Secretary of the Treasury, well then you convince taxpayers to buy the
junk for you. If you are Hank Paulson it makes sense.
But if instead you are an economist who has specialized in
credit crises in a globalizing economy the problem isn’t just about bad loans,
it is about frozen credit markets – banks that lack liquidity. Then the answer
is to pump money directly into the banks – and because you don’t do that
without some quid pro quo, you take a healthy share of the banks’ stock in
return. That was the plan Paul Krugman has been pushing.
Since this isn’t a fictional story, these plans have real
consequences that can be measured by the market. When the Paulson plan was
announced markets went a twitter. When it was passed by Congress the Dow had
the worst WEEK ever. When a variation of Krugman’s plan was adopted, with
Britain in the lead, Wall Street had it’s best DAY ever. And as luck would have it, Krugman won the Nobel Prize for
Seems the the jury is in. Paul Krugman is our Hero.
Not that the recent stock pop will last – it probably won’t
– but that the ideas behind it resonate with the people in the trenches. It is
the Hero’s ability to inspire the folks on the firing line that makes the right story
so central to real leadership.
Like a lot of people who spend way too much time prowling
the web I was shocked by this YouTube of folks coming out of a Palin
Rally convinced Obama was a terrorist. If that is the take away from a GOP rally
something is seriously wrong.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons not to vote for Obama
– enough so that I don’t really have to list them here – but him being a “one
man terrorist cell” whose “name says it all” is not one of them.
“Of course, not every story has a happy ending, and
there is a very real moral danger in creating villains… Story telling is innate
in human beings, but it is in some respects a value-free process. Fortunately,
there is a fail safe. Those stories that produce destructive and negative
actions tend to cannibalize the people who tell them. They rapidly eliminate
themselves from the cultural dialogue…”
But what do we do while we wait for the fever to run its
course? Listening to the wise words of our political elders seems a good place
This speech by Republican Jim Leach, formerly the
Representative from Iowa’s 2nd District, fills the bill. It was
given at the Dem convention, and is an endorsement of Obama, but that isn’t the
point. The point is that it is truly bipartisan.
What I really like about it is that it places the story of
this election cycle in the larger context of the Four Great Questions that have
been at the heart of every American election from our county’s beginning and lists progressive
politicians from both parties who have helped our country move towards achieving our ideals. It would make the kernel for a great High School
History class discussion.
Sometimes the real gems from a political convention don’t
standout until later. This speech is one of those. To find out more about Jim
Leach, click here.
Sarah Palin is not the only interesting story coming out of
Alaska. Ted “Hell No” Stevens is on trial for failing to report “gifts” from
“lobbyists.” His is also running for reelection. The DNCC put
together this little gem. I don’t like negative ads, but this one is too genre
perfect to pass up. If you still have doubt that great political ads are story
driven, this 30 sec spot should lay them to rest.
A quick 5-elements analysis: The Passion (irreducible core)
of the ad is carried by the opening sound track – a cross between a political
thriller and a local news stations investigative reporter theme. It establishes beyond doubt that this will be a crime story. The people in the van are our Heroes
(we even see Stevens’ house on a video monitor stressing their point of view is
our point of view). Stevens is the Antagonist “He thinks he is above the law”.
And crucially there is a moment of clear awareness when one “reporter” says
disgusted, “And I voted for him.” Finally a transformative tag line “It’s not
about Alaska anymore.” This is great stuff.
BTW, if anyone has any great Repub ads I’d love to analyze
them. Most of what I’ve seen from the Repubs are tired retreads, but I’m
probably missing something. Enlighten me, please.
I don’t usually comment on the debates. I don’t do
play-by-play and in story terms these debates have basically been yawners.
But one moment from the VP Debate has stuck with me. Palin
set it up early by conspicuously asking Biden, “Can I call you, Joe.” Then later
when he brought up McCain’s record she pulled the trigger with “Say it ain’t
so, Joe. There you go again, looking backwards.”
Biden’s reply when asked to respond by moderator Gwen Ifill,
“Gwen, as you know, past is prologue,” seemed awfully academic to me given
Palin’s down home diction. But now a video has come out that shows Biden may
have been doing a little setting things up of his own.
This video is long – 13 minute – so it is preaching to the
choir, but it seems to be designed to tell the Dem faithful what they need to
know to pivot character attacks on Obama back to their strong point, the
economy. Don’t have 13 minutes? The trailer is only 30 seconds.
In McCain’s defense at least initially he seemed to learn
his lesson from the Keating fiasco and he earned his reputation as driver of
the “Straight Talk Express” by being open and honest about his mistakes with
reporters. But now, in an analogous situation, he seems to be ducking even off
the record interviews. Am I the only one that finds that strange?
The other day I was at my
doctor’s office and he started in on Health Care. Since he was holding a very
large needle in his hand at the time he had my total attention.
What he said made sense but I
have no expertise in this area, so I asked him to write it up and I’d post it
as submitted as an example of informed grass roots storytelling. If there is
anyone on the other side of the issue that wants to respond I’ll post that as
is as well (same length please). Me? I just want to sit back and watch the fur
Doc Eliot wrote:
The McCain Health Plan
consists of nothing more or less that the unlimited federal subsidy of
Yes. This is
true. The Republican health care plan to reward insurance company lobbyists is
camouflaged by promoting the issuance of “Tax Credits”. This money would go
directly to the insurance companies. Furthermore, there would be de-regulation,
freeing out-of-state insurance companies to do business across state lines
while violating the states’ rights to regulate, and therefore resulting in the
lowest common denominator of health care. Insurance companies would be free to
continue to raise prices, deny payments, and meddle in the practice of
medicine. There is no current Republican plan to actually improve health care.
How do they plan to raise the money by which the federal government will
subsidized the insurance companies? Currently, employer health benefits for
employee are non-taxable. The McCain “Health” plan would tax this money!!! The
McCain plan would increase taxes in order to subsidize insurance companies.
The Obama Plan is
extensive, realistic and designed to engage and address all health care issues.
Please go to booth candidates’ websites and verify the truth of the situation
Do not be
fooled. Your health and the health of everyone you care for is at stake.
Great stories always have an inherent symmetry. This is
particularly true of those stories written by history.
At the beginning of the Bush Administration in 2002 John
DiIulio, who had run President Bush’s Office of Faith Based
Initiatives resigned and called Karl Rove’s minions “Mayberry Machiavellis.” For many the name stuck.
But among Mr. Rove’s most useful political skills is his
ability to see the branding gems hidden inside many insults. Attack George W’s
grammar and miraculously his syntax will become even more tortured. Then Neocon
commentators will stress how “down home” and “mainstream” W’s wisdom really is,
as if most folks didn’t actually pass the seventh grade and most “ranches”
aren’t devoted to growing cattle but to producing an endless supply of scrub
brush that needs to be telegenically cut.
So it is to be expected that the Mayberry theme of this
White House might lead the Rovian Repubs to choose a down home Mayor from a
backwoods little town even smaller than the mythical Mayberry for the role of
And Sarah Palin, who got here training in front of the
camera as a local sportscaster for KTUU-TV in Anchorage, is playing it for all
it is worth. And more power to her. Her unique speaking style, so easy to
imitate and so brilliantly parodied by Tina Fey, is a form of verbal branding that will make sure her 15 minutes of fame won’t
run out who ever wins this election.
That her verbal style is a conscious decision – and so
worthy of praise – can be seen if you listen to how she responded in debates when she ran for Governor of Alaska. The winks, nods, “aw shucks” and “I’ll get
back to yas” just aren’t there.
To see how effective this type of verbal branding can be in
building a heroic persona, listen to the Master, Andy Griffith in his classic storytelling routine “What It Was, Was Football.” One problem for McCain: If Palin is playing wise and steady Sherrif Andy,
who is playing the socially awkward, nervously erratic and occasionally irrationally
angry role of Barney Fife?
Yes, Virginia, there are real villains in politics. In our
book The Elements of Persuasion we stress not
demonizing an antagonist. In the real world, as opposed to Hollywood, you
should be careful using the V word. But there are times it fits. We are
reaching one of those times.
I’m not talking about nasty attack ads. Those are often in
the eye of the beholder. Your hero is my antagonist. Your scandalous lie is my
biting social commentary. It’s an American tradition that goes back at least to
the mercurial friendship and bitter hurt feelings of Jefferson and Adams. A
little mud slinging keeps our democracy down to earth, and hurray for us for
doing it. Americans are a scrappy bunch. That is one reason we’re such lovable
galoots. But the desire to win can go too far.
If there is one thing all Americans should agree on it is
that every citizen has a right the right, if not the duty, to vote. That is not
a technical right granted by a benevolent State, it is an Inalienable Right
made tangible by the sacrifices of our Founding Fathers and “watered by the
blood of patriots” in every generation since. So organized voter suppression is
If this is actually happening, shame on whichever party
Of course there are more
sophisticated technical ways of denying – or enhancing – the vote (and both
parties seem to do it). Check out HBO’s Hacking Democracy – availabe on disk – a
truly scary documentary. Perfect for your pre election Halloween Party.
As I said in the last post both candidates should take a
strong NO position on the suggested financial sector bail out for purely story
reasons. Lets start with McCain.
Remember, this election is about America choosing its
“hero-in-chief” We are looking for someone who can hold their ground in a
difficult and dangerous world. In marketing terms it is about having a strong
and sustainable brand.
The McCain campaign has been pushing two related brand
concepts; 1). McCain is a maverick and 2) McCain “will fight for you”. Saying yes to this bailout seriously erodes
By definition a maverick does not run with the herd, and
that goes double in the middle of a stampede. It looks like that is what
Paulson is trying to get going. The Treasury Secretary probably sincerely
believes that this is best way to save the situation, or it may just be that
this is the way the Bush Whitehouse likes to market its proposals (it does seem
eerily similar to how we got into Iraq and passed the Patriot Act) but that is
the current administration’s story choice. For McCain to beat the bad rap that
he is “McSame” he needs to separate himself from those choices. He needs to stand strong against the biggest special interest in
Congress – the Financial Products Industry. If he doesn’t his maverick brand is toast.
McCain also needs to say no to protect his only really effective brand slogan
“I’ll fight for you.” You can’t go into a fight by giving up before it
starts. And you won’t have much leverage to “hold the bad guys
accountable” and “make them famous” if you give them a blank check and promise
not to ask any hard questions for the next two years, and that is what this
So McCain should just say “Thanks but no thanks” to the
Treasury Secretary’s proposed 700 Billion dollar “bridge loan to nowhere.” His
political survival depends on it.
If you have been following this blog for any length of time
– and if you have, sincere thanks – you have noticed an increasingly partisan
tone lately. You deserve to know why.
When Bob and I started to comment on the political stories
we weren’t doing it as Repubs or as Dems. Our expertise is in corporate (Bob
prefers to say “organizational”) story telling. Political campaigns are great
examples of that sort of state-of-the-art persuasive communications. Our
expertise isn’t in what you are trying to sell, but how you are trying to sell
it. That’s the point of this blog.
And for many months we hewed to this “neither Dem or Repub”
line. Both political parties had
candidates who told their stories well, and that is what interests us.
Then the McCain Palin campaign crossed a moral line with a
truly scurrilous ad. I’m talking about the Obama “sex ed” ad from a few weeks
ago which implies through camera angles and general creepiness that Obama is a
pedophile when in fact the bill he was voting for was to help protect young
children from sexual predators.
Recently on the “Straight Talk Express” the press
started to chant “Bring back Mac, Bring back Mac.” This ad proves it may
already be too late. Mac, we considered
you an honorable man. You broke our hearts.
There is a real symmetry between what is happening right
now on Wall Street and what happened in the 9th Ward of New Orleans
when Katrina struck. Both that hurricane and the financial down turn we are now in were acts of nature. Hurricane seasons brings nasty storms, and stocks go down as well as up.
The job of a government agency – FEMA or the SEC – is to
make sure that as few people as possible are hurt by the laws of physics. But if you are a committed Neocon and believe that if you can’t have less government you can at least make
sure the government you do have will work less well, then the
crooks and cronies you have manning the levies and policing the street when the shit inevitably hits the fan will be predictably
incompetent. This isn’t a mistake. It is the result of doctrine.
According to Andrew Leonard at “How the World Works” John McCain is trying to get ahead of this story by calling for the firing of
SEC head Christopher Cox. Aside from the slight “lets eat our own young” aspect
to this, it is a good story move by McCain. A bad move would have been to say
Cox was “doing a heck of a job.”