Narrative Follies

Coming from a marketing background, my instincts are strongly with Danny Finkelstein in his article in the Times today about the importance of narrative. He says:

“The image of a product like Coke is not separate from the way it is experienced. Similarly, the way policies are explained and linked together, the story that is told about them and the brand image of the party advancing them affects the way those policies are experienced. Perception and reality, spin and delivery, style and substance are woven together.

I have one major amendment, which is I believe that the audience that most requires a convincing narrative is the media class itself and that changes what you can do as a politician.

What is a narrative, after all, but a way of turning a series of events into a story that is easily grasped and explicable? That is the job of the media, it is what they excel at. Hence, it is what they esteem in others. This isn’t a rant against the media (for once). In turning events into stories, by imposing a narrative on them, journalists and editors are responding to a human drive for explication.

We see the same thing in marketing. Sure Daz washes whiter, but how do we bring it to life to the consumer?  Those are the questions advertisers ask.  The answer is through drama and narrative. So instead of a man in a suit telling you the scientific facts about detergent efficacy, you end up with Danny Baker pitching up at someones house asking if they’d be willing to show their laundry to the nation, or a Persil ad that stresses how, because Persil can be trusted to get everything clean, mum can relax about her kids getting dirty.  These are impositions of narratives on consumer products.

As Danny says, we respond to these narratives. We respond to them so strongly that we internalise them, coming to believe that Coke tastes better than Pepsi, or that Persil is somehow gentler on the skin than arch rival Ariel*. We’re designed to respond to narrative. Good thing too. Otherwise no-one would bother to write Crime and Punishment, or Grand Theft Auto, or Lost.  

So Politicians need to develop narratives.  But it’s a competive marketplace. It’s not enough for politicians to simply provide a hook to hang their latest announcement on. Their narrative has to encompass both what it is they’re trying to do, and a reason for consumers of the narrative (in this case journalists) should accept and propogate it, rather than other narratives that are on offer.

Why am I so insistent on the audience being journalists and the narrative market being competitive?

It’s not because narrative isn’t important to voters. It is, but it’s less important than crime, their mortgages, immigration, the economy and whether or not their local school is any good. Yet the only way those voters are going to see any political narrative on the areas that matter to them is through the agency of the media- and thus it is the media that defines the way every issue that matters to voters is covered**.

Politics is a mediated business.

You can’t buy a £30 million ad campaign to set out your narrative. Even if you could, that campaign itself would be drowned out by the commentary on the narrative created by journalists. Remember what happened to Dasani, the mineral water that wasn’t? That’s what happens to narratives when the media decides it preferes an opposing narrative. (actually, David Cameron reminds me of Dasani – a pale blue, expensively marketed, synthetic imitation of the real thing).

All of which poses a conundrum for political types. If the key for success is to develop a winning narrative, but the people who you need to spread that narrative are, as they are at the moment, already embrace a competing narrative and are primed to mock any narrative you try and come up with, what can you do?

The answer is to force some defining split that forces your narrative on the agenda.  Think back to 1994 when Bill Clinton was bloodied and beaten by a triumphant Republican party.  Here is the New York Times on “our generations greatest politician” TM

“…Mr. Clinton’s greatest political liabilities: his failure to give citizens a clear, consistent explanation of his goals, and the widespread belief that he is weak, that he can be rolled.”

Not that different to how the media sees the Prime Minister today, and just as wrong. That was the Media’s Clinton narrative in 1994 though. Weak. Beaten. Bloodied, Inconsequential.

Clinton managed to fight back by dramatising again and again his differences with the seemingly dominant republicans, while staying firmly in the centre ground. 

Here, the one thing that has changed to the Prime Minister’s advantage over the last week is that he’s now thought to be an underdog by the media.

Underdogs have to do one thing, and that’s fight hard. In politics, that means fighting for the people on issues that define you against your opponents plans.  It’s happened often in America- Harry Truman from ’46 to ’48 as well as Clinton from ’94 to ’96. 

With a media expecting a Tory victory a Labour narrative could be about fighting every day for the economic security of every family in Britain against those who would risk it for short term popularity.

No matter how I might wish for it, Journalists won’t just retail this story because politicians make speeches or give interviews. They’ve got better, more fun alternative narratives to hand. Why should they suddenly dump a world view that fits things perfectly for the one we’re selling? They won’t.

No, to be propogated widely a new Labour narrative need to be dramatised by a battle over issues that cleave Labour and Conservative on social and economic policy, while not retreating to the false safety of a core vote strategy.  (I can think of a few ways of bringing that contrast to a head- but as this is a discussion on narrative, I’ll leave the policy options to another post.)

Simply put, any narrative now has to embrace that feeling of battle, of something significant at stake, or it will be rejected by those who control whether it will be propogated as mere marketing and tinkering – a story line that fits very well with their existing mind set.

That makes me happy, because politics should not be merely competing narratives, but narratives that are based on issues that have real significance. In my washing powder days we used to call it the competitive demonstration or the “side by side demo”.  It’s the bit where you say “My product does what you want. Yours doesn’t. So try mine instead”

Time for some side by side policy demo’s to bring our political narrative to life, I think.

*Interesting side note on this. The UK is about the only place in the world with a non-biological laundry market. Why? Because when Lever Brothers launched Persil Bio there was a media scare about it’s effect on skin. Sales collapsed, and Persil were forced to bring out a non-bio detergent when people started reporting skin rashes.

None of it had anything to do with enzymes.  Twenty-five years later, people still believe non-bio detergents are better for their skin (and marketing comapanies are still using non-science to make it all sound reasonable). That’s narrative power.

** The exception to this is when parties are organised and hard working enough to get messages across directly and often. This is why party organisation and organisers are the other great important thing in politics.

5 Responses to “Narrative Follies”

  1. Cassilis

    Excellent piece Hopi – a couple of observations though.

    Although far more eloquent and moderate than most ‘blame the media’ pieces there is an element of that here. Joe public ‘consume narratives’ too even if they wouldn’t recognise that description – saying that ‘narratives’ are “less important than crime, their mortgages, immigration, the economy and whether or not their local school is any good” is true but I think misleading. Most apolitical punters (which by definition excludes us bloggers and the like) don’t have defined and distinct views on crime and education policy etc. They just buy into their narrative of choice – something that’s determined by their preferred newspaper and media habits, social background, economic situation etc.

    However unfair that seems it should still be part of the armoury of any decent modern comms outfit to be able to manage their public narrative to generate the outcome they want. That Brown has failed so markedly in that respect is still his fault – even if you believe that his material successes elsewhere should more than offset the failing.

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  2. hopisen

    Fair enough point – I’m really not trying to blame the media here merely to say that demanding a narrative without understanding how they’re consumed leads to a waste of everyone’s time.

    On the real issues vs narrative thinf all I meant was that a ‘narrative’ can’t replace percieved relity. If you’ve got no job a narrative of economic success won’t do much!

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  3. alabastercodify

    I think you said you didn’t watch the local election coverage (in the main, a good choice), but you’d have seen david miliband making an almost identical point. or rather not making your point, but acting on it.

    In response to Dimbledumb’s inane jabbing at him, he consistently tried to make the point that, in his words, he didn’t believe “the mood of the country was with the tories” – in that their belief in government getting out of the way was not what most people thought needed to be done. And he led from that to setting the scene for an ideological struggle in the next two years, which he said he’d relish.

    If you want to check it out on the iplayer it’s about three hours in – quite interesting to see your good points above so neatly encapsulated in real time.

    I’m certainly someone who’s all up for seeing Brown get a good kicking at elections, but I admire miliband’s obvious enthusiasm and genuineness.

    how much do you think, btw, that narrative of the kind you’re arguing for here is really much the same as “ideology” (note I’m not someone who thinks ideology is a dirty word). Do you see it as being a poor relation of ideology, a simulcrum of it that’s sadly necessary in this media age? To me, the kind of narrative you describe in your last few paras is pretty much the same as ideology, as least as it’s played out in the world of action, not of text books…

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  4. Theo Blackwell

    Great piece – I’ve forwarded it to a bunch of people.

    On the Clinton example, though, Brown can’t really place himself as an ‘underdog’ in the way that Clinton could. When the Gingrich and the Republicans took the House in 1994, they had the power to legislate. The Tories only have a bunch of councils and the Mayor of London – the dispersal of power in this country is too weak for Labout to claim that…

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  5. hopisen

    Theo – thanks I agree with you about the essential difference between the UK and the US – the counterbalance in a way is that the UK media is even more packlike than the US, so the “perception” of underdog status can possibly replace the “reality” of losing congress in any narrative. However, there’s a real question over whether that’s enough. I think London might help to bridge that gap, though.

    Alabaster- on ideology – when I saw your comment my immediate response is ideology is to arrative what product benefit is to advertising. That is, ideology is the basis of why your “product” is superior, but not always the best way of explicating that. this might just be ludicrous glibness though!

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