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Story Appeal and Public Choice

January 13, 2010

Let’s set this up for an adult discussion group. Study the items in this scene. What is the intended effect? Advertisment or reality show? Back stage at the West Wing?

A commenter at the White House Flickr site says, “Damn, Obama looks like James Bond.” And, on the other end of the spectrum, Ann Althouse and Glenn Reynolds see a tired man worn down by months of log-rolling–the expression of a long suffering and only-too-understanding foster parent…

Either way, why must we see a story in this picture?  I don’t think a bias to story can be avoided. The puzzle is why. For better or worse, stories continually spring from the imagination. Show a series of unrelated film shots and the mind will force a pattern onto them. (1) A guy standing on a corner. (2) A shot of fog. (3) A shot of a guy saying, “It’s crazy this time of year. (4) A car approaching.  Your mind will create the thread and finish it.  Images flash in a dream and upon waking we want to know what they mean.

Forget modernist, Joycean anti-plot bull shittake for a moment and repeat after me: a story is a the progression of incidents that occur while the protagonist is pursuing his goal. Whatever obstacles he struggles with on the way to achieving that goal is…wait for it…dramatic conflict.

So whatever story you’re telling yourself about Obama clusters into the meaning of this picture. Maybe you see him as a Hegelian synthesis of history. Your mind supplies the back story. You assume he’s overcoming antagonists on the way to a higher synthesis. Or, instead, you assume he is the antagonist thwarting your own pursuit.  Obama as James Bond…it doesn’t have to be James Bond, the main point is that people cast political leaders in the protagonist’s role. The illusion, of course, is that there’s a story here.

Consider mad man David Ogilvy’s creation:

Part of Ogilvy’s genius was to realize that if you have nothing to say about the product, then focus on the user. If you can’t change the product, change what it means. Create something with a little mystery–he dubbed it “story appeal”–and let the audience fill in the rest. The eye-patch was a last minute addition to this 1950s campaign, but it was decisive. A cluster image drawing on William Faulkner and pirates…people wanted to be that kind of person. A list of the product’s superior virtues–any logical approach–would have fallen flat. After all, Geico’s lizard has nothing to do with insurance.

Democracy amplifies this effect by giving voters the illusion of taking part in a story. If you have nothing to say about the product, pay homage to the user. We want Marlboro Men and Jolly Green Giants and Pillsbury Doughboys. In a post today, Robin Hanson lists some of the ways our pursuit of high status may limit the types of governments we prefer. I suggest story appeal may be another. Arnold Kling has said our political system demands a “maestro.” Governments without active, symbolic actors would appear less attractive than those with a flair for the dramatic.

I don’t see an immediate solution to this problem.  (Tyler Cowen airs some concerns on our predilection for storytelling here.)

One Comment
  1. Clayton permalink
    January 19, 2010 2:02 am

    Obama is using his unmatched telekinetic powers to effect hope and change in Haiti. 😛 Jokes aside, Obama is just another member of the species Homo Sapiens and tortured introspection about his every gesture seems obsessive to me. If he chose to, he might be able to effect some changes that improve the prospects of individual liberty but I very much doubt he will do so… which means he is just another disappointment, in bed with the establishment. The chances of becoming POTUS without being in bed with the establishment are infinitesimal. It’s hard for me to understand how so many smart people – very smart people – can really believe Obama’s rhetoric about bringing meaningful change to Washington. Oh well.

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