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The Hero’s Pitch

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.

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16 thoughts on “The Hero’s Pitch

  1. I can see the examples in politics, but is did Dave Thomas really have a hero’s journey? Seems pretty thin. More of a Horatio Alger story, although that may be a kind of hero’s journey if you are taking it very broadly. Just don’t see the divine inspiration in that example

    • Yes, the Horatio Alger is a derivative of the Hero’s Journey, filtered through Benjamen Franklin’s autobiography. It is uniquely American for many reasons.
      Divine interference / inspiration can sometimes be simple magic (Harry Potter). Col. Sanders’ “Secret Formula” is stressed to this day because it hints at that strongly – try saying “formula” without an image of “magic formula” attached to it. But this is a difficult concept in the modern world – even in “Star Wars” Lucas felt compelled to explain The Force away as a bunch of bacteria-like things called midichlorian. So that is often the first thing to go when adapting the Hero’s Journey to a modern audience.

  2. I would like to hear more about this idea as it relates to women. It seems to me that it is always different but I can not come up with examples. That is not to say that it is not a good idea but the only example you gave is political. Thanks.

    • I agree. Perhaps this is one more path to break ground in for women but I really don’t see it, either. But I can’t see this in any of the president candidates we have now. Obama had it but as you said it will be different this time.

      • Yes on women (see below).
        The candidates now do not have this, and Obama should re-invent his quest as an ongoing one – I’ll get into that later. But he can’t really ditch his “Chosen One” routine very easily because it would alienate those who got him into office. I think he can change it, however.
        Gingrich probably missed out on a neat Hero’s Journey more than anyone else. For him to take that up he would have had to explain his disgrace at leaving the Speakership behind, which he should have done anyway. Putting it into a context – “I screwed up, and spent the next decade in the woods understanding my error” would have made him very powerful along with “I am now back to lead with the great knowledge I have learned to renew the cause again!”. Just my few cents worth.

    • Sheryl, I wish I had a lot more to say as well. There is a “Heroine’s Journey” archetype, but it’s not as strong and not very modern, really. However, I think the Hero’s Journey archetype is not particularly gender-specific, at least in modern terms, and is something that women could adopt more.

  3. I’m not sure I buy all of this but it is pretty standard in literature. I guess it is a good story to tell and Jobs sure had it but not everyone does.

    • It’s more than standard – it’s probably the oldest archetype in storytelling and certainly the most common. That’s what gives it a lot of power – not the newness, but the familiarity that can only come from being truly classic.
      I’m using the concept very broadly here, but the advice to those who want to use the archetype is the same all around – get to know it before you modify it!

  4. The unspoken myth behind Mitt Romney story is that of the son completing the mission of the father: to become President of the US. Also he is the successful business man out to tame government. The third underlying story is that Mormonism is no barrier to being President. So Romney would extend the dream of irrelevance of his religion to holding the highest office.

    Another thing that has not been analyzed in depth is his age, the generation he is from. Romney was born in 1947. He would be the third baby boomer president, if elected. (For those born in the early 1960s I believe you can choose if you want to be in the baby boom . I was born in 1964 and I’d rather not be labeled as a baby boomer.) There has been no president born in the 1930s or the 1950s.

    • That could count, yes, but it would have to be developed more. I don’t know anyone who knew who George Romney was who doesn’t speak highly of him, so Dad is a big plus for Mitt. We hardly ever hear of the guy, however.

  5. Didn’t Michelle Bachman make an attempt this with her initial story about her entry into politics? I seem to remember a version in which she is portrayed as an attendee of a Republican caucus who is drafted by other attendees as the only person capable of moving the nation away from the evils of the left wing conspiracy to do whatever it is that the left wing is conspiring to do. The story is completely false, of course, but no surprise there.

    • Pay, thank you! I was trying to remember her campaign story, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I remembered something sorta like that as well, so maybe we aren’t nuts, unlike …. well, let’s not go there. :-)
      But I do think that the Hero’s Journey as we know it does work well for women because it calls them to break out of their pre-assigned role and assume a leadership. It also describes why they are qualified – unique knowledge or inspiration or even guidance from a higher calling. I want to write a lot more about this but have very few examples.
      It did work for Joan of Arc, we can say that much.

  6. As you alluded to, Mitt completing the mission of the father won’t be a part of the campaign story. He has to stand on his own. As the defeats of Dole, Kerry and McCain suggest, biography and prior heroism does not trump the message, the organization and the money of the campaign. To some extent we live in a post-heroic age in politics. Ideology and policy positions will matter more. We seek our heroes more in the arts.

  7. Governor Romney’s fall campaign may include specifics tied in with the following “heroic” themes:

    1) When government expands, liberty contracts. Smaller federal government, importance of states, choice and competition.
    2) When you tax something you get less of it. Reward work and investment.
    3) A strong defense and actively engaged foreign policy secures liberty at home. Anticipate and counter threats, support democracy, rights and free markets.
    Romney will portray Obama as Carter and Mondale.

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