The Tale Behind the Yarn in Christian Salmon's "Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind"
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Last February, a former Uber employee published a blog post about the widespread sexism in the company. Since then, Uber has faced scandal after scandal, resulting in a PR crisis and multiple executives of the company, including the president, stepping down. Within a month, the story Uber had constructed for itself over the last eight years, as a successful, innovative Silicon Valley-based start-up, began to collapse.
Christian Salmon’s Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, translated by David Macey, originally published in French in 2010, begins with the rise of storytelling as a marketing tool, a trend that began in 1995 and became ubiquitous shortly thereafter. Salmon, a French author and journalist, tracks the relatively quick shift in marketing from selling products in the 1980s to selling logos, then from logos to stories. Nike is one of the most dramatic examples. The company’s identity had been solely based on the “swoosh logo.” Once activists and human rights organizations uncovered its labor violations in the 1990s, Nike’s reputation crumbled, and the “swoosh logo” wasn’t enough to save it. This triggered a need for the company to construct an identity “based upon something less volatile than a slogan, an elegant logo, or an eye-catching commercial.” Nike needed a counter-narrative. Today, stories are fundamental to our understanding of marketing: a brand tells a story to sell a product, whether it’s an energy bar, shoes, or a phone. Stories are a way for companies to cut through the noise and reach customers by forming a relationship with them.
Salmon looks at how the “storytelling machine” became fundamental to companies, but also politics, military and government, so much so that it can manipulate audiences by making brands, politicians, and even war, glamorous. If that sounds like a lot of material to cover in a short book, it is. Each chapter focuses on one of these topics and attempts to outline how storytelling operates within it. Salmon looks at the repercussions of governments or companies exploiting our innate connection to narrative, yet the wide range of subject matter creates a fragmented book, packed with anecdotes but an unclear thesis connecting them.
The most compelling segments are the most specific: the chapter, “The New Fiction Economy,” for example, goes into detail about call centers in India, where the idea of “the American dream” is exploited to encourage workers. Employees’ minds are transported to another country, but not their physical bodies. Through accent correction courses, and discussing the weather and daily sports news with customers, the callers are transported overseas and participate in “the new Indian dream.” In reality, they are working for 14 hours in a room in subpar conditions. False stories extend to other industries where “fictionalization” of relations in the workplace can create an illusion of camaraderie in order to give employees the feeling that they aren’t competing against each other. Linguistically, the terms shift from a hierarchy with a boss, to a team with a leader.
In the chapter on politics, Salmon mainly focuses on George W. Bush’s presidency and his second term. One of the most concrete examples Salmon discusses is Bush’s $6.5 million campaign, "Ashley’s Story", from 2004, in which a fifteen-year-old girl who lost her mother to 9/11, is shown hugging Bush. “He’s the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure that I’m safe, that I’m OK,” she says. The campaign was only 60-seconds long but, Salmon argues, its impact changed the course of the election because of its emotional impact. The ability to elicit fear and the need for protection in a simple story, all the while casting Bush as an ever-present savior, was essential to the Republican Party’s success.
Salmon uses this example to leap to a larger argument about how the whole political process has become a theater of actors performing for an audience. He quotes journalist Ron Suskind who was told by a senior advisor to Bush that Suskind lives in a “reality-based community” and that, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Salmon explores how the idea of creating stories, which then become part of a political agenda, took hold in this era, yet such a wide claim looses focus with only a short chapter to discuss it. Anecdotes like these pepper the book throughout. In another chapter, Salmon talks about a collaborative project between the Pentagon, the University of Southern California, and a Hollywood studio, to create narrative computer games that simulate a war scene. These games were used for training and recruitment of soldiers for America’s wars. The book ends with a chapter on how Obama storytelling appealed to the “American unconscious” by constructing a global and forward-thinking narrative based on his own hybrid identity, giving the US “a mirror in which shattered narrative elements can be put together again.”
There is little tying these vastly different kernels of ideas together, and the connection between how marketing, politics, and the military use narrative, isn’t crystallized. The main takeaway of the book is that under capitalism, anything can be turned into a story.