In response to Francesca Polletta's talk:

Three stories and a commentary.



1. "Ashley's Story" :30


2. Volkswagen Touareg "Picture" :60


3. "What Barry Says" Knife-Party


In thinking about the effect of storytelling in deliberative groups, I thought it would be interesting to compare that kind of personal storytelling to storytelling on a large scale.

I'm a television commercial director, so my curiosity about social communication comes both from professional experience and from my interest as a citizen in how a large consumer democracy forms opinions and makes choices. Or to put it another way, what are the conditions in which reality is best encountered by the public? The idea of a multimedia documentary about deliberation -- -- grew out of this curiosity. And above are examples I've noticed of other forms of storytelling, social persuasion, and social decision-making.

Well-made commercials are to deliberation as seduction is to debate. With the three examples shown here, if you add the first two stories, one might say they lead to the third.

"Ashley's Story," made by a pro-Bush 527, came out in October and had the largest media buy of any spot for either presidential candidate -- $ 14 million in airtime. It's purely emotional: there are no policy statements or promises in it. For a single commercial, it had a big impact: "Ashley's Story" was even credited with tipping the 2004 election by USA Today, Salon, and AdAge.

The Touareg spot is aimed at a demographic of affluent, educated coastal types -- people, in fact, who were more likely Kerry voters in the last election. Volkswagen is a brand that is more popular among Democrats than Republicans and this commercial targets women, who make most purchasing decisions for family cars.




How Do Consumers Think?

It may seem an odd choice for a comparison, but I think the Touareg spot and "Ashley's Story" have fundamental things in common -- and reveal much about politics, marketing, and maybe even the restorative value of personal storytelling in a deliberative setting.

Both spots seek to cast a spell on the viewer with one version of a story that's well-delivered. "Ashley's Story" is not the same as Kristen Breitweiser's story; the Volkswagen visit to the woods is not the same as a Sierra Club visit to the woods. In each case the immediate emotional effect mutes a viewer's critical abilities.

(This is a point that a media-savvy reader will find obvious. But since we know that this mechanism is reliable and that it works, the question becomes, what is a reliable counter-balance?)

It's interesting to follow in detail through one example to see the process in action.

The Touareg spot presents the story of a young, attractive couple doing a favor for an old lady, using their SUV to go far up a mountain trail to snap a picture of the vista from the mountain top, and then driving back down to return the lady's camera with the precious photo on it.

The landscape is beautiful, the acting is low-key and realistic (notice the fond look the woman gives her partner as they drive up the trail to do their good deed), and the music on the soundtrack is lulling.

There are some quirks in the story if you take it literally, and looking at the quirks makes the mechanism more transparent.

Why don't they bring the lady with them? Then she could actually see the view, and take the picture herself. (The Marketing 101 answer: no old people allowed in that SUV. That car's for young and sexy people -- kind young sexy people.)

A more obvious question is, if they love the environment, why are they driving a gas guzzler that gets only 15 mpg? The indirect answer there is about what the Touareg is not: a minivan (for families), a pickup truck (for red-staters), or a Cadillac Escalade (for rappers).

The main answer is that, in their role as consumers, people are likely to simply want to feel like they love the environment, rather than actually change their driving habits or desires.

Just as with "Ashley's Story" -- where individual viewers may seek the feeling of being secure rather than a review of security improvements, or admissions of error, or the density of the 9/11 Commission Report.

Both spots squarely overcome rational obstacles suggested by the subjects -- as in, "Hey, those are lovely old trees, won't global warming harm them?" -- or, "Hey, wasn't 9/11 a massive failure on the part of our leaders?"

They overcome obstacles because they deliver something else.


Following Emotional Scripts

More important than what the spots literally say is what they emotionally say. In "Ashley's Story," the underlying emotional script might be "the President loves and cares about an ordinary teenager -- therefore the President also has the capacity to love and care about me." Leading, ideally, to "I'll vote for him to continue this emotional bond --- he makes me feel safe."

Again, what I think is most interesting about the spot is that there is no reference to, or promise of, future safety at all -- it's very pure and sophisticated in that way. It's only about rewarding human relationships.

In the Touareg spot, the underlying emotional script might be: "We're young and cool and good-looking, but in a laid-back way. We appreciate nature, and do favors for old people -- we are free spirits, but responsible too." The Touareg spot is also centrally about relationships -- the affection between the couple, and their kindness to the lady. Nothing mechanical is mentioned (cylinders, horsepower, etc.)

Looking closer at how these spots work in the real world, one can see where the mechanisms of deliberation have a value, with or without stories (although I think participant's stories may actually be a benefit).

Imagine a well-paid young professional living in the suburbs of a city -- let's say a lawyer at a big firm. She and her husband are thinking about a second car.* One evening, she comes home from work, burnt-out after eleven hours of reading contracts, flops on the sofa, and flips on the TV to watch "The West Wing" and relax. The Touareg spot comes on. The music washes over her, the couple driving up the hill look harmonious and sweet. The sun flickers through the trees. The SUV is gleaming and lovely. She likes it.

On the weekend they visit a dealership, and soon drive off in their new Touareg. She and her husband are Ivy-educated and politically aware; maybe they gave early to Howard Dean, later to Kerry. They support NRDC and Emily's List. They read Thomas Friedman's column in the NY Times, preaching about how Americans should use less oil, and for a few minutes after she reads the column, she feels a little guilty about her SUV. (According to a Yale survey, SUV owners are even more worried about global warming than is the population at large.)

Maybe she writes another check to Greenpeace. But every day she drives the car is a pleasure -- as a status object it provides an undercurrent of satisfaction between the long hours at the firm and brief time at home. Beginning with the feeling created by the commercial, she's been appealed to in the right way...and now she feels validated -- she has the right thing. (If this scenario seems unlikely, I offer friends and classmates for evidence, along with the driveways of East Hampton this summer.)

Being a consumer is about being narcissistic -- that's the point of being a consumer. The scenario above is reproduced thousands and tens of thousands of times, in both red states and blue states, at all levels of income and education. Consumer habits form the foundations on which government policy is built. Unless there is a countervailing move in public opinion.

Meanwhile, political marketing, until recently lagging the skills and research depth of consumer marketing, is catching up. Republican strategist Frank Luntz provides a handy overview on an episode of Frontline -- which is revealing in two ways -- first, that a marketer is so confident of his technique he is happy to show how it works, and second, that the reason for this may be that he thinks that if you are watching Frontline you are already part of an elite that is irrelevant to the emotional dialogue going on among average Americans.


What's the opposite of thinking like a consumer?

Here's an alternate scenario with the same young professional:

One day, she's assigned at her firm to join a team of five colleagues to choose cars for the company fleet (I doubt law firms do that, but pretend). They sit around a table with brochures and look at vehicles online. They compare numbers and features, they tell stories about good and bad cars they've had, they argue personal preferences -- maybe someone wants a Jaguar, someone a Mini, someone a Prius, someone else a Touareg. Given the company budget and the deal-making skills of six people from a law firm, they could probably drive a hard bargain and do well. If they all shared our imaginary lawyer's interest in the NRDC, they might even settle on Prius's for the firm as a shrewd public relations move.

In actuality, I have no idea how the deliberative car-buying experience would work out...if the firm would end up with a Ford or a Lexus or even a Touareg. But what I am certain of is that the emotional mechanisms of the commercial we've looked at would be virtually neutralized in a deliberative setting.

Television is an escape, it's a dream world, and the emotional transactions within it are transactions with your own fantasies (the President cares about me -- or -- if I buy this car my relationship will be good, and my partner and I will relax together and look at trees). I have nothing against entertainment in the service of commerce, and I love working in the business -- except when it replaces reality in a destructive way.

Incidentally, the name Touareg comes from a nomadic tribe in Africa, a culture vulnerable to global warming. The Volkswagen Touareg is counted among the least environmentally friendly cars on the market. A recent article in the New York Times (pdf) spells out the looming issue of climate change and Africa. The Pentagon gave the same issue thought two years ago.

The great value of deliberation may not be some serious breakthrough in policy on a public level, or even a big jump in knowledge and civic interest (though those things would be good). To me, the value is in shifting people's thinking on critical issues away from a mode of solitary consumer narcissism, and towards thinking like a juror in a group. From consumers to citizens.

Europe has as deep an advertising culture as the US, and yet it seems to be counterbalanced by something -- café deliberation, perhaps? I recently spoke to a friend in Berlin, and he suggested that the difference between bankers and lawyers in New York and in Europe might be traced to something as simple as the lack of outdoor seating in New York (and the lack of extra minutes in evening to spend in it with a coffee and a friend). Many highly-paid professions use every second of the day, and then leave the person just enough energy to get home, flip on the TV, and fall asleep before they return to work in the morning. Whatever the reason, Europe remains a consumer culture that reaches different decisions on energy use.

[The consumer psychologist Clotaire Rapaille, or one of the neuroscientists in the field, might say that shifting the dominant electrical activity in the brain 3 centimeters forward, out of the emotional limbic system, and up into the reasoning centers of the neo-cortex, sums up the difference in perspective between a consumer and a citizen.]




The Stories Other People Tell

I'm pretty worried about the whole story-telling machinery running unchecked around the world, and although I admire the style, the "What Barry Says" piece is an example of things I'm worried about. (It was sent to me by a friend who is a commercial director in Sweden; advertising is a very globalized business, so the views on the US from outside give looking at the country a double image.)


Laws of Political Storytelling

It's probably very hard to get a group to adopt a political narrative that they sense may lead them to a loss of status (real or imagined). This might be why male Bruce Springsteen fans love the Boss's storytelling, but tend to reject his political conclusions in the real world -- which a review of white male voting patterns in New Jersey shows along with evidence (pdf) from Springsteen's pre-election concert tour. In comparison to the working class white males from which he came, Springsteen, whose megastar status is secure, can afford to choose progressive politics. Even if in the real world progressive policies might do his blue collar (and even white collar) fans practical good, that branch of politics lacks the psychological benefits that may be more valuable to an individual choosing politics on an emotional basis. Even as good a storyteller as Springsteen is.

The Onion followed that logic and correctly called the 2004 presidential election ten months ahead of time, with a spoof of political storytelling that has more than enough truth behind it and has the benefit of prescience.

The political scientist Andrew Hacker points out (pdf) that a storyline that appeals to vanity may be successful.

David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge, suggests that information technology and the resulting explosion of unmediated stories "shifts politics, inexorably, to the right."

Since "What Barry Says" puts the finger for world evil on the Project for the New American Century, it's hard to escape mentioning the ideas of Leo Strauss and how in Platonism, the ideal society -- led by an elite ruling class -- embraces deceptive storytelling. Conversely, a healthy democracy probably requires a multitude of true stories calibrated to real groups.
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