It is the most basic of all stories, common to every culture and probably written first in our genes. The Hero’s Journey is a powerful tale of destiny, determination, usually reluctance and doubt, culminating in a victory that inspires and gives great gifts to the world. It can be told as Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, over and over again, with infinite variation.
What is less obvious is that, as a powerful archetype, it is also used to sell.
The Hero’s Journey is important to much advertising, especially when it comes to political campaigns. It is worth getting to know at the gut level it springs from not just to sell people and things, but also for its effect on the narrative that shapes our world.
The Hero’s Journey has been dissected and analyzed to the point where it can almost be done in rote form. Joseph Campbell called it the “Monomyth”, a term borrowed from Finnegan’s Wake – a classic if twisted example. The hero is called, usually refuses at first, but takes up the cause with divine inspiration. He or she proceeds to have a great adventure, learns a great deal, and through perseverance and valor achieves something great. The moral is self-contained in the quest.
Modern retellings often twist the story in interesting ways – such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But the strangest adaptation comes in advertising, when a hero and their story becomes the human face or brand of a product. Dave Thomas and Col. Harlan Sanders are the most obvious examples, with Steve Jobs being the most recent figure elevated to Hero Pitchman. The story is never one of simple genius, but of the quest – it starts in a garage and proceeds forward to gradual greatness. It can even be told in small vignettes 30 seconds at a pop. A highly derivative form could even include the rabbit that never quite gets the Trix but keeps on trying. But the most effective pitch includes the detailed backstory that slides into popular culture along the well-worn path of the hero.
Political campaigns are the most obvious place where the Hero’s Journey is critical to pitching the product. George Washington was called to defend his new nation and was sorely tested at Valley Forge before persevering on to victory. That archetype cemented the Hero’s Journey into Presidential politics in particular, where a strong leader is the main pitch. We don’t always have a true Hero’s Journey on the ballot, especially in the 2000 race of Bush versus Gore – neither one could claim a quest of such epic proportions. But when there is a Hero’s Journey the appeal is strong – and in the case of Reagan’s “renewing America” it defines an era even after the Hero has gone.
Campaigns also work best when the quest is still in progress, calling on ordinary citizens to join it – much like the peasant uprising in Marseilles that was joined by thousands on the march to Paris to become the French Revolution. That was the appeal of Obama in 2008, but he will have to modify that for re-election into perseverance in the face of adversity – more on this later. Mitt Romney has no chance at crafting a Hero’s Journey that I can read at this time, so a strong quest as a counter can be unstoppable.
Note that the Hero’s Journey is very different from the heroic moment, which didn’t work very well for either John Kerry or John McCain. McCain almost had a quest as a maverick, but it strangely fell apart.
Women have a tougher time pitching themselves as being on a Hero’s Journey, but when it sticks it works. Sen. Patty Murray, the “Mom in tennis shoes,” was a classic reluctant warrior who gave up a safe middle-class life to make a difference, as the narrative went. Any woman who can use this device to run for office can and should, but has to sell it consciously and constantly to make it work.
Away from campaigns, the Hero’s Journey is amazingly flexible and centers a product on a distinct human face that becomes the brand itself. Setting out to make the best donuts in the city probably includes trials and tribulations that can provide a great backstory that will bring not just customers but believers. Car salesman, always eager to humanize their beleaguered profession, usually stress humble beginnings that culminate in success.
As a storytelling narrative the archetype of the Hero’s Journey is without any doubt the most powerful. It sells products like nothing else because it has not only built in branding but a range of powerful images deep within it. It should be used whenever possible, but only once the classical narrative is understood as deeply as form itself.