Oprah time: Über by Kieron Gillen

Back in the day reading graphic novels like the Über series would have been a niche interest at best.  Now with the rise of Marvel and DC universe films they are part of mainstream culture.

Über invasion

But not all comics are about accessible hero stories with easy cinematic adaption. My preferred writers like Gillen use the superheroes to ground the stories more in a gritty reality.

Garth Ennis from Preacher to The Boys has looked to subvert and examine comic franchise conventions. Gillen tried to get us to examine our own conventions and pre-conceptions about war.

I see clear parallels between their work and the ‘political’ spaghetti westerns of Franco Solinas in particular.

Gillen’s Über uses superheroes to explain the kind of damage cased by massed Russian artillery in the march to Berlin and atom bomb blasts a la Hiroshima.  Superheroes make the horrors of war more relatable.

It is also interesting how what would seem to be a ‘diesel punk’ series hinges on transformations that are outside the the power of medicine even now. Finally, there is a clear parallel and differentiation between Captain America and Über.

In summary, if you want a good thoughtful read and aren’t squeamish; start reading Über.

Five things marketers can learn from the life and career of Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin at Madame Tussaud's New York

Aretha Franklin left a great body of work behind her over a five decade career in music. Her career had its degrees of twists and turns, both of which are reasons why she will sit along icons like David Bowie and Prince. But don’t you just die a little inside when someone on LinkedIn takes advantage of a celebrity death? They post a catchy headline like the one above about Aretha Franklin.

The then come up with five general points that could fit into most people’s lives. They think that they are profound as Chicken Soup For The Soul or a Maya Angelou quote. In reality they are asinine crap.

There are others who with list marketing tropes that probably first read in Philip Kotler’s Principles of Marketing; but they think are gold dust. They aren’t.

So before you put finger to keyboard in order to boost your visibility by capitalising on the name of a dead person – don’t. I get that you want visibility to help your business or career, but at what cost? You give the industry that I work in a bad name. Which is the reason why we see commentary like this one by Bill Hicks. When marketing and advertising is trying to be relevant to society, why would professionals want to alienate society further?

  1. Did you actually know the celebrity? If not, now is not the best time for your article.
  2. Would your article be read out at a funeral as a eulogy? If not, don’t press publish.
  3. Will the celebrity’s fans appreciate your contribution to the celebration of their career? If not don’t publish.
  4. Is your article designed purely to capture the wave of interest about the celebrity? If so, don’t publish.
  5. Search your motivations, is this about you appearing as an expert rather than celebrating the career of the celebrity? If yes, or you’re not sure – don’t publish.

Ramblings on consumption

We think of consumption as part of the very stuff of modern life. I clear out items on eBay. My Mum and Dad have boxes of things unopened since they moved house in 1981. A lady who lived up the road who died last year had people working for five days to clear out the things she had hoarded. The house had been packed with items from ceiling to roof.

The role that consumption plays varies but taps into deep emotional ties. I felt both an emotional journey that I can only equate to grief and a certain release on getting rid of my record collection. I moved country for work and the bulk of it had to go. What was more distressing was not being able to make sure that it went to a good home at the time. It had defined me, brought me joy and latterly had been a weight that I only felt by its subsequent absence.

Consumption and identity are also intertwined.

In my pre-internet days you could get a sense of someone by visiting their sitting room or their bedroom.

  • What kind of books did they read?
  • What posters or pictures did they have?
  • Was there sports scarves, or signed shirts?
  • Family photographs
  • Taxidermied animals in either rural or ‘hunting, shooting or fishing’ households
  • What kind of videos did they have?
  • Where they a gamer?
  • What CDs, vinyl and cassettes did they have?
  • Did they have a system of hi-fi separates? What were the components like? Did they have headphones?

You were able to build up a picture in your head about the person, their tastes and some historic touch points.

Much of this now remains out of sight in the sitting room with the rise of cloud based services. But the picture is still here, though you will need a screen to see it.

For many people homes are a mix of the digital and the analogue. Some young people may adopt analogue items for ‘authenticity’ in their lives. For older people its the archeology of their lives. Photos not converted to digital scans. Music that had meaning or was at a certain stage in their life. Souvenirs from holidays.

If I look at my own parents:

  • They were more passionate about active collection of music in the 1960s before they settled down. They have finally got rid of a Philips mono turntable in plastic that hadn’t worked for years and a Sony reel to reel tape player. Both devices chosen for their luggabilty rather than quality. They had lived transcient young work lives, working away from home and living in digs
  • My Dad had spare time from shift work that he used to read a mix of reference books and fiction from the 1950s – the early 1980s. Since then he mostly reads caravan and crafting books
  • My Dad has a vast amount of tools in various states of repair that he accumulated. From when he started his apprenticeship to electronic meters bought this year
  • My Mum has a mix of cookery books from the 1950s to the 1990s and notebooks stuffed with clippings from magazines of recipes. In the notebooks are hand scribbled recipes that she exchanged with friends
  • They have carpets and stools that they crafted from kits in the 1960s before multi-channel TVs

With time, more hasn’t mean’t better ‘quality’ consumption. Technology has provided us with more reliable electronics. Unless you are a hi-fi buff you are unlikely to know about the fragility of valve electronics or the weight of discrete solid state circuits.

Globalisation has brought consumption of more ‘just good enough’ products. My parents still have some of the furniture that they bought when they got married. It isn’t Vitra or great Danish design, its mass producted items of its time. But the quality of the construction and materials contrasts with flat pack furniture bought later.

Less consumption seems to have had a number of sides to it:

  • More conscious choice on quality. You couldn’t just order another on Amazon
  • Greater focus on curation of items
  • Less clothes but of a better quality
  • A macro view on ‘need’, rather than the micro view defined by the now

You had the vintage well tailored tweed jacket or furniture that had been in the house for generations. In years to come what will all the delapidated Billy bookshelves and tchotchke fridge magnets say about us? Maybe this is a good part of the authenticity at the centre of Peter York’s ‘Hipster Handbook‘?

I started to think about these things following a death in the family. My uncle lived in the ancestral home; which is a small farm in the west of Ireland. I had spent a good deal of my childhood there with him and other relatives. Life had got in the way of going back in person and there had been bigger gaps in time to my visits than I thought.

Going back to the farm brought thoughts about consumption into sharp focus for me. My Uncle’s approach to consumption was very different to mine and likely yours as a reader.

  • He never owned a car or combustion engine-powered farm machinery. He hired in contractors and machinery when it was needed
  • As a child I had played amongst decaying wrought iron horse drawn equipment, that would have been used before the widespread use of tractors
  • I can remember when electricity was installed
  • Had a modern television but didn’t use it. He actively preferred the radio as his media of choice
  • He had a solid fuel cooker that provided central heating for the house. He also had an electric cooker and microwave oven, but refused to use the microwave
  • His music collection had been gifted to him by family over the years. They assumed that he liked local artists playing Irish traditional music. I don’t think that he went through the process I had done of exploring new music and tastes
  • He regularly read a local paper, but owned no books bar a booklet on the value of notes and coins
  • He had never travelled for leisure, but had been gifted souvenirs from my cousins. These came from Donegal to Dubai
  • Presents that he had been given decades ago remained in a drawer in case he would need them, from ties to aftershave
  • The family had tried to force him to have a cellphone and he only relented when he was in hospital during his later years and a neighbour gifted it to him
  • His idea of interactive gaming was a Benson & Hedges-branded deck of playing cards with four people around a table for a game of ‘Twenty Five

IMGP3019.JPG

His house remained unchanged from when my Grandmother had lived there. There wasn’t his ‘footprint’ in the house at all. From a personal point of view it meant that I could understand my Uncle in terms of ‘what’ he did; but not the ‘inner life’ that we are used to understanding through ‘reading the tea leaves’ of consumption: books, music etc. At the time I came away perplexed, a mystery that I would never understand.

He lived in many respects a pre-industrial agrian approach to life. Time moves at the pace of the farm work rather than the clock. Your mark on the world was in the continued existence of the homestead.

This brought into sharp focus for me the newness and ‘abnormality’ of modern consumerism. Perhaps ownership of the land provided the ‘weight’ that mass consumerism provides for many of the rest of us? And what would it mean if you had felt that ‘weight’ all of your life as my Uncle would have as the oldest son in the family?

In contrast, my Grandmother had been more modern in her attitude to consumerism. She loved the television. She got rid of old wooden chairs that would need the occasional coat of paint for black powder coated steel and vinyl cushion seats.

Into her late 80s she loved DVDs of traditional Irish music performances. A tape of electronica and early rap that I made at the age of 15 so she could understand what I was into at the time was a step too far for her.

Five for Friday | 五日(星期五) | 금요일에 다섯 가지

Things that made my day this week:

In Japan, 24/7 convenience stores play a similar role to what supermarkets have in the west. They do groceries, allow utility and mobile payments and provide other services like faxing or photocopying. They offer free wi-fi and air conditioning in hot weather. There are an essential part of of Japanese life and there is a ‘combini-culture’ around them. Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Fragment Design has taken a good deal of influence from combini culture for ‘The Conveni’ retail concept. It includes processed food, bandanas in sandwich packs, towels packaged like onigiri rice balls and sweat shirts in snack packets.

conveni

If you can’t get to Tokyo, you can still look at their e-store.

Michael Gove famously said that with regards to Brexit people were tired of experts. Obviously discussions between men in a pub is the antithesis of expert discussions. So here is a podcast with a couple of knowledgeable people in a pub

Lippincott were working on a Toys R Us rebrand that the company couldn’t implement. I don’t know if design could have saved Toys R Us, but the work is really nice.

Aphex Twin launched a new EP; there were posters around the world and a fantastic video by Weirdcore. Warning the video will affect people with epilepsy

Egyptian Lover picks his favourite Roland TR-808 songs – amazing listening. Some of this brought me back to my early teenage years.

What if Stories are Brain Code?

The boy on the wall

From Hollywood to the marketing industry we’re told that stories resonate with us. They are the reason why films, books, video games and TV dramas entertain. According to storytelling theorists like Joseph Campbell; we find fulfilment understanding what is happening. Campbell et al think that our enjoyment of stories analogous to the enjoyment of solving puzzles. What if stories can be more than puzzles for our enjoyment?

Our understanding of storytelling

Our understanding of storytelling is of a more tenuous nature than Newtonian physics or organic chemistry. You could argue that Joseph Campbell was a ‘victim’ of his discipline. He worked in the fields of comparative mythology and religion. Campbell was looking for universal patterns in stories. He assumed that rest of us are as well. Though this ‘understanding’ would be occcuring at a ‘low level’ in computing terms. Only select (mostly educated) people would think of it at a higher conscious rational level.

Like many academics in the early and mid-20th century his work drew inspiration from eastern religions. In Campbell’s case, like Nietzsche; he drew from Hindu thought. Campbell’s interest in Indian philosophy was due to a meeting. In 1924, Campbell encountered the messiah elect of the Theosophical Society. He was on a cruise liner from Europe to the US. Campbell was also profoundly affected by Nietzsche’s work.

  • Did Nietzsche open Campbell to Indian philosophy or was it the other way around?
  • Was it just the nature of a naturally enquiring mind?
  • Were there factors that made him more open to it?

Campbell based his theories on myth and its connection to the human psyche in part on Sigmund Freud. Campbell’s myth concepts drew on Jung’s dream interpretation methods. Jung’s insights into archetypes drew from The Tibetan Book of The Dead. Campbell quotes Jung on The Tibetan Book of The Dead in The Mythical Image:

“belongs to that class of writings which not only are of interest to specialists in Mahayana Buddhism, but also, because of their deep humanity and still deeper insight into the secrets of the human psyche, make an especial appeal to the layman seeking to broaden his knowledge of life… For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thodol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights.”

(Bardo Thodol is another name for The Tibetan Book of The Dead). A lot of this hinges on the value of dreams. Heres what Dream interpretation and false beliefs has to say. It was published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice in 1999:

“Dream interpretation is a common practice in psychotherapy. In the research presented in this article, each participant saw a clinician who interpreted a recent dream report to be a sign that the participant had had a mildly traumatic experience before age 3 years, such as being lost for an extended time or feeling abandoned by his or her parents. This dream intervention caused a majority of participants to become more confident that they had had such an experience, even though they had previously denied it. These findings have implications for the use of dream material in clinical settings. In particular, the findings point to the possibility that dream interpretation may have unexpected side effects if it leads to beliefs about the past that may, in fact, be false.”

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate Campbell’s theory in terms of storytelling. But it seems to cast doubt on the application of Jungian dream interpretation for clinical use. The best advice that I can give in this matter is caveat lectorem.

From Academia to Hollywood: formulaic stories

 

Joseph Campbell was a prolific author.  He published material that went into over 40 books. Part of this was due to the efforts of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which collected his papers and published a number of work after his death. These included: coverage of his academic work, travel diaries and even his personal philosophy. It was picked up on by the American public, which has been endless quoted and misinterpreted due to the phrase ‘follow your bliss’.

The key work of Campbell was his 1949 work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. it was his first solo work and got him recognition outside academic circles. The central them is that ‘myths’ from around the world all share a common structure. This is what Campbell called a ‘monomyth’. The monomyth or hero’s journey was mapped out visually on Wikipedia

heroes journey

Campbell went on to propose the purpose of these myths which he grouped into four functions. Wikipedia described it thus:

The Metaphysical Function – Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being The Cosmological Function – Explaining the shape of the universe The Sociological Function – Validate and support the existing social order The Pedagogical Function – Guide the individual through the stages of life

Campbell’s work went on to influence luminaries of the 1960s counterculture movement including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Jim Morrison. It’s obvious influence in film kicked in around the same time. Stanley Kubrick introduced it Arthur C. Clarke. This happened during their collaboration to turn Clarke’s short story The Sentinel into 2001 A Space Odyssey screen play and book. George Lucas’ role in the popularisation of Campbell’s work was probably the biggest single effect. Hollywood at the time was in a state of dramatic change. This change mirrored the kind of change that the punk ethic and independent labels wrought on the music industry a decade later. Artistic and cultural change, further globalisation of artistic culture, new motion film camera technology and the rise of television created a set of factors that helped facilitate the rise of New Hollywood. The initial success of these director-driven films allowed power shifted from the producers to the studios for a time.

  • Directors drew on foreign influences: new wave cinema, Japanese cinema
  • The MPAA ratings system allowed more adult subjects to be discussed that would have otherwise been taboo
  • The Panavision Panaflex camera provided a more compact way to shoot on 35mm film. This facilitated greater use of location shooting, providing a more naturalistic style and also facilitated Lucas’ special effects in Star Wars

Whilst Lucas was part of this movement; both THX 1138 and American Graffiti, fit within the New Hollywood genre. But like Stephen Spielberg, Lucas unwittingly created the next stage in movie development that helped producers take back their seat of power. Star Wars became a blockbuster. Though the ingredients were very different to the corporate creations of Marvel Studios or the Transformers franchise.

Its homage to the chambara films of Akira Kurosawa, pre-war Flash Gordon episodes and vintage westerns smacked of New Hollywood. It’s blockbuster status meant that the industry paid attention to valuable lessons learned. George Lucas became the first film maker to publicly cite The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other Campbell works as influences. Lucas repaid the creative debt that he owed to The Hero With A Thousand Faces by allowing Bill Moyes to shoot a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell  at Skywalker Ranch.

Campbell and storytelling theory then became baked into Hollywood’s DNA. Over time it came into marketing, firstly through the creative side of the advertising industry. Television advertising at the time borrowed creative direction and stories from movie expertise. Directors like Tony Kaye and Ridley Scott moved between advertising and film projects. Eventually storytelling moved through other parts of the marketing industry including public relations. Hollywood have taken a number of turns at further refining Campbell’s monomyth model.

One has to note that their goals are different from Campbell’s research. Hollywood largely seeks to entertain (for profit) and getting the viewer to suspend disbelief for the duration fo the movie or TV series rather than  achieving one of Campbell four functions.

Different cuts on the hero's journey

Volger is commonly cited by modern script writers. He refines and expands the thinking around the monomyth. Volger puts more emphasis than Campbell on the hero’s change in emotional state and internal journey.  His emphasis on emotion is important when one is creating content to land brand messages and would be of interest to the advertising community. The biggest area of disagreement that many have with Volger’s approach is that his structure implies a steady change in emotional state and internal journey of the hero. A paradigm shift in state would possibly create greater dramatic tension for the viewer.

From monomyth to winning algorithm.

Technology has moved from the creative process of film making an into the commercial side of the process. The movie industry is supporting machine learning based startups like ScriptBook. Belgium-based ScriptBook analyses screen plays to produce forecasts before a film is put into production. ScriptBook provides a box office earnings forecast, likely MPAA rating and recommended market demographics. Of course, many classic films had screen plays that were altered or completely rewritten several times. The tortured overworked scriptwriters working miracles in really short times and ‘script doctors’ called into ‘fix’ a bad situation. Both are part of the Hollywood system and its own mythology. In many respects ScriptBook mirrors the marketing industry’s move towards the adoption of predictive analytics for consumer behavioural change.

How stories work for the brain.

Behavioural scientist Nick Chater has roughly two decades of published academic work behind him based on research in various aspects of cognitive science. He has a depth and credibility to his work that we currently don’t have  on people and storytelling.

In his book The Mind is Flat, Chater posits that the mind doesn’t have conscious and unconscious aspects. Emotions aren’t hard wired, instead thoughts and feeling are created on the fly. This effectively invalidates Freudian psychology principles. Our inner voice is effectively our brain telling storytelling to itself.  Our identities are constructed and given shape on the fly by the stories that we tell to ourselves as we go along. The unconscious mind would appear to be a conceit about our depth.

This brings to mind the final episode in season two of Westworld, where the systems who had been trying to replicate humans realised their challenges. They had assumed humans were complex in nature, where as the show claims that they can be replicated in 10,247 lines of code, with definite limits on their potential. Of course 10,247 lines of code, whilst less than Photoshop could have a world of fractal complexity.

Essentially there is no ‘deeper’ language than storytelling. Stories aren’t only about rules and plot consistency, but about creative leaps.

This means from a marketing perspective whilst if we get stories right, they can be more powerful than we had previously imagined. In computing terms we would be writing direct the processor or ‘hitting the metal’ as games programmers would call it. It also needs to take into account that getting great stories is really hard.

It also casts more questions about whether we have learned the right lessons to date about storytelling from the likes of Joseph Campbell?

More information

Joseph Campbell – The Mythical Image
The Tibetan Book of The Dead
Mazzoni, G. A. L., Lombardo, P., Malvagia, S., & Loftus, E. F. (1999). Dream interpretation and false beliefs. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(1), 45-50.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Hero’s Journey – Wikipedia
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
The Writer’ Journey by Christopher Volger
Artificial Intelligence Might Affect How Studios Greenlight Movies | Cinemablend
Artificial Intelligence Could One Day Determine Which Films Get Made | Variety
ScriptBook “Hard science, better box office” and Crunchbase profile
This Man Says the Mind Has No Depths | Nautilus
The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind by Nick Chater
‘Westworld’ Season Finale Recap: Code Unknown | Rolling Stone Online