Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Invisible Children

Mutable Masses?

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history:  across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.

Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared:  a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).

Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities. [1] Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents.[2] In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing:  “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then  leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.

At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.

However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

Ever the Same?

So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984).[3] Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.

Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.

Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.

Reconsidering the Masses

If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).

A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).

Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.

A Higher Power

Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external:  God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.

Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.


[1] Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)

[2] Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).

[3] We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.


On My OWN

 

Modern American culture finds itself infused with celebrities, typically thought of as Hollywood actors or reality show starlets. Increasingly, however, the moniker of “celebrity” is being applied to potentially unlikely individuals, giving rise to the “Celebrity CEO.” Beginning with a brief examination into the possible purpose and cultural function of the celebrity, this paper will then go on to focus on Oprah Winfrey as a particular type of celebrity CEO who has created, and subsequently embodied, a lifestyle brand. Throughout the course of the paper it will be argued that this strategy presents some advantages to celebrity-endorsed endeavors while presenting some additional vulnerabilities. Finally, the implications of this status as celebrity CEO will be applied to the Oprah Winfrey Network.

 

Oprah Winfrey, an American media figure familiar the world over, certainly fulfills modern definitions of a celebrity:  face prominently featured on streaming banners in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Oprah is associated with events like “Oprah’s Favorite Things” along with projects like Oprah’s Book Club and the Angel Network. Although ubiquitous, if one should doubt her celebrity status, one need only remember that Oprah has also managed to obtain the true mark of the modern star in American culture—the ability to drop her last name and still be recognized. Even Daniel Boorstein, who criticized the current state of celebrity as being devoid of meaning—in the process coining a term that has become colloquially referred to as “famous for being famous” (1962)—might have to reconsider his thoughts after encountering Oprah Winfrey. Ranging from stories of sexual abuse as a child to weight management issues played out in public, Oprah is quite literally known for being well-known:  part of her allure stems from her willingness to address the darkest parts of her life with her audience and part of her power comes from fans’ ability to connect with Oprah through these stories.

Beginning with a brief background into the nature of the celebrity CEO, this paper will explore the general effects of celebrity CEOs with particular respect to narrative before examining Oprah as a particular iteration of this process. Celebrity CEOs, it will be argued, are not entirely dissimilar from other types of stars when it comes to issues of brand management, although they necessarily possess additional economic and social considerations. Once the connection between a CEO’s dual identities as executive and individual are established, Oprah’s development of her lifestyle as brand will be briefly discussed as foundational context for an evaluation of the launch of OWN (i.e., the Oprah Winfrey Network).

 

There’s No Business Like Show Business?

In an increasingly industrialized world filled with sprawling organizations, CEOs have become somewhat sequestered from the majority of their employees, leading to isolation and alienation (Yalom, 1998). Although undoubtedly recognizable to boards of directors, it appears as though CEOs have become largely disappeared from public view (with notable exceptions as will be discussed below).

Directly addressing this issue, the CBS reality television show Undercover Boss facilitates the connection between roles of “CEO” and “person”—although the program likely provides an opportunity to learn about the inner workings of their organization, the arguably larger benefit is the humanization of a corporate suit. Although viewers might cite schadenfreude as a prominent theme, laughing as they see an administrator stumble over a seemingly “simple” task, the net effect (realized or not) is that they most likely begin to connect emotionally with the undercover boss; they become actively invested in the outcome of this somewhat contrived scenario and an unspoken desire to see that the CEO has learned a lesson indicates that they have come to care about this person and his or her company—provided that the CEO is at all likeable.[1] In the course of an hour, audiences are not only exposed to a company that they may or may not have heard of, but also been introduced to a CEO and a handful of employees and witnessed “behind-the-scenes” or “backstage” operations (which might also serve to increase our identification with the company)—all in all, not a bad public relations move for a corporation!

Alternatively, we can consider that an appearance on a show like Undercover Boss instantly transforms a CEO into a media figure. Thrust into the public eye, one becomes a minor celebrity through the power of television:  even if we had little to no prior interest in the featured boss, social cues prevalent in a mediated society indicate that we should pay attention—a major broadcast network surely would not have chosen to feature someone who was not worthy?—and the mere ability to command copious amounts of attention (momentarily at least) affords a CEO the ability to transcend mundaneness, potentially obtaining the status of a celebrity.

Moreover, the Undercover Boss example indicates that while CEOs could potentially demand or cultivate an audience themselves—as suggested by Lois Arbogast in reference to Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn (2010)—they can also be featured or promoted by journalists (Hayward, Rindova, & Pollock, 2004). Although we might ascribe the prominence of CEOs to their role as leaders, we can also consider how humans display a tendency to oversimplify situations in order to understand complex and nebulous narratives.

Take, for example, a study conducted by Jones and Harris demonstrating that the prevalent attitudes in a writing sample were attributed to its author:  this study represented the first time that the Fundamental Attribution Error had been observed, although it was not immediately labeled as such (1967). In short, the Fundamental Attribution Error posits that observers tend to ignore situational explanations in favor of personality- or dispositional-based ones. In turn, these perceptions of us, once established, can cause us to act in particular ways as we endeavor to maintain our public image. Although the corollary between the Fundamental Attribution Error and the celebrity CEO might not seem apparent at first, we can understand how humans have learned to employ the Fundamental Attribution Error as a type of heuristic—a mental shortcut—in order to simply a intricate situation into manageable (and readily understood) explanations. In the case of the Fundamental Attribution Error, we see an eschewing of situational/environmental factors as we focus on an individual. Similarly, we focus on the actions and exploits of a celebrity CEO, channeling the output of a multidimensional process through a figurehead.

As a specific example of this process, the origin story of non-profit group Invisible Children taps into the pervasive myth of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with its depiction of young adventurers traveling into a foreign land on a quest to find and cultivate a narrative. Lured by a sense of mystery into East Africa, an unexpected assault by the Lord’s Resistance Army alters the path of the filmmakers, acting as the impetus to enter into a world fraught with danger and uncertainty:  the realm of the unknown (Russell, 2007). Prior to this point, Kenya and Sudan had represented a relatively unfortunate, physically demanding, and sometimes boring wilderness for the team but nothing substantial. With the assistance of various guides (one of these a literal guide tasked with driving the group to a nearby refugee camp), Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey began to glimpse the conflict that underscores the region as they asked a series of questions of the locals. Wholly consumed by their newfound situation, the filmmakers discovered a little-known world of night commuters and child soldiers in Northern Uganda. This alien setting, which “disgusted and inspired,” also presented an opportunity for transformation as filmmakers shed their naïveté and were reborn as crusaders against witnessed injustice (Invisible Children, 2010). Having found their story—the ultimate prize sought at the outset of the journey—the founders of Invisible Children extricated themselves in order to return to their homeland as masters of the unknown and share their insights with their community. The documentarians themselves echo this sentiment in their first production, Invisible Children:  Rough Cut, through a voiceover that proclaims that the group came to Africa as novices but hoped to “leave as warriors” (Bailey, Poole, & Russell, 2004). While never explicitly acknowledged as a tool, it seems plausible that self-described storytellers such as Jason, Laren, and Bobby would have integrated successful elements of narrative into their production.

Although the real-life nature of Invisible Children’s origin precludes an exact overlay with the steps of Campbell’s monomyth, it is easy to imagine that the retelling of the tale draws some of its power (consciously or unconsciously) from this established structure. For some, the intertwining of narrative and Invisible Children might have seemed inevitable for an organization created by filmmakers/storytellers, born out of a documentary, and focused on recounting a tale of adversity in Uganda. Nevertheless, through the mythic nature of Invisible Children’s origin story, the organization’s founders are made into celebrity CEOs, performing a similar function as those individuals featured on Undercover Boss as the surrounding narrative is rewritten to feature a chosen few as its stars. Celebrity CEOs, then, can be understood to act as a focal point for the narratives that surround and pervade a company, locking the perceptions of the organization and individual into a symbiotic (or mutually destructive) relationship as sentiments accrued in one role migrate to another. In the case of Invisible Children, the organization’s founders were able to leverage the mystique associated with their experience into a full-fledged movement with their stories at its origin.

 


 

The Medium Is the Message

Structuring the message as a narrative helps to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Personal narratives, however, provide a relatively simple path that cuts through the chaos and allows audiences to focus. Preachers, for example, might utilize a parable to illustrate a point, giving audiences something familiar to relate to while simultaneously introducing a new idea. In a larger sense, we can also consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors functions of advertising or identity construction via celebrity culture; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn intricate lessons without any overt effort. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.

For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman, 2004; Williams, 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell, 2004)—this concept gains additional importance as we think about modern celebrities who are, along with handlers and public relations agents, in charge of their brand and understand celebrity CEO’s as an extension of this. The ramifications of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound:  with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.

Stories, it seems, not only allow us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also afford us the ability to share our interpretations with others (Short, et al., 1994). Indeed, author Stephen Greenblatt mentions that a sort of compulsiveness exists that is intrinsic to storytelling (1991). The function, then, of narrative is not only to shape a community, but also to create (or at least maintain) it. The process of sharing not only relays information—an important function, to be sure—but also serves to cultivate the bonds between source and receiver. Sharing represents an important component of storytelling as it facilitates a sense of community with a successful story anchoring an individual’s commitment to a community, strengthening the overall cause.

Oprah as Celebrity CEO

As previously discussed, Oprah has managed to use the power of storytelling, often recounting stories of a deeply personal nature, in order to develop her brand and her audience (a form of community). For example, Oprah’s rather public weight battles offer one point of connection with her viewers:  due to the show’s longevity, audiences have been able to readily document Oprah’s weight gains and losses. Although the same sort of scrutiny has plagued female celebrities for years—Calista Flockhart, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ricki Lake, Carnie Wilson, and Jessica Simpson come to mind—Oprah managed to benefit from the potentially negative discussion by addressing it directly. In addition to deflating the issue, Oprah’s weight struggles allowed her audience to sympathize with her, strengthening their connection to both Oprah and her brand as trainer Bob Greene was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in books. Consistent with her overall message, Oprah did not advocate for a diet but instead argued for a fundamental change in lifestyle. Further strengthening the bonds between her brand and her personal life, Oprah also publically trained for a marathon in 1994—in this scenario, the brand espoused by The Oprah Winfrey Show is literally embodied by Oprah herself. With this act, we see the synergy between goodwill accrued by Oprah as a media figure and the struggle of a real person to obtain a goal—cheering for Oprah in one capacity naturally led viewers to support her in her other endeavor.[2]

Given Oprah’s strong presence as a personality and as a media mogul, the talk show host seems ripe for consideration as a celebrity CEO. Even ignoring the connection between business and self latent in the name of Oprah’s production company, Harpo (i.e., Oprah spelled backward), Oprah appears to have carved out a niche for herself as a lifestyle brand that promotes self-transformation. Fitting neatly into the ongoing lives of its supporters, Oprah promotes a brand that is anchored to her public perception that, despite presentation in multiple media channels (e.g., television talk show, online website and message boards, magazine, and self-help books), retains consistent messaging, which allows each experience to compliment, but not compete with, the others.

As further evidence of the connection between Oprah’s personal lifestyle, we can reference the much ballyhooed “Favorite Things” episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Although possibly driven simply by a desire to share her favorite things, the episode has become a production unto itself, rooted in emotionality and vividness while circumventing logical and rational thinking. The spectacle of the “Favorite Things” episode uses vividness and sensationalism to indicate that the featured products are emotionally interesting, image provoking, and proximate (Sherer & Rogers, 1984; Nesbit & Ross, 1980)—cues that seem salient when discussing media-saturated audiences notorious for variable attention spans and interest. Over the years, in-studio audiences have been groomed into a carefully controlled state of histrionics as they gush about whatever objects are placed in front of them while lauding Oprah’s charity.[3] Although participants of these parties most likely do not stop to consider the processes at work, the creation and careful cultivation of affective ties helps to bind them to Oprah and her lifestyle. Ultimately, although the audience is given free gifts (ignoring the taxes that must be paid), one might argue that individuals do in fact pay a price for these goods:  in exchange for material gain, the audience offers up its ability as a consumer bloc to dictate trends and value.

Adding support to this idea, we can consider the successful implementation of Oprah’s Book Club as another way in which Oprah was able to largely influence American culture through her lifestyle as brand. Using The Oprah Winfrey Show as a platform, Oprah was able to express her approval of a wide range of books (and reading in general). Although Oprah’s Book Club likely sparked a number of book clubs around the country, one might question how many of these were simply waiting, with baited breath, for Oprah to announce her next selection—instead of seeking out books that were personally meaningful, viewers may have abdicated this power to Oprah as she assumed the role of cultural dictator.

Oprah’s Book Club also demonstrated one of the potential pitfalls of connecting one’s personal life to one’s professional presence:  in 2005, Oprah’s support of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces caused her personal integrity to be questioned as the selection of the Book Club became suspect (Koehn, Helms, Miller, Wilcox, & Rachel, 2009). Although Oprah most likely could not have known that Frey’s work was a fabrication, her pick, and subsequent support on Larry King Live, caused minor damage to reputation due to her personal involvement in the matter.[4]

 

Coming into Her OWN

Continuing the deployment of her lifestyle brand, Oprah plans to debut the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011. Described by Winfrey as “A channel where people will see themselves…see who they are through the lives of others—in a way real way that enriches them,” one can sense the immediate connection to her existing brand (ABC News, 2010). Building off of her phrase “Live your best life” (a sentiment remarkably similar to, but also strikingly different in tone from, the Army’s “Be all you can be”), the message is clear:  the Oprah Winfrey Network, like all of Oprah’s other media ventures is about the power and process of self-transformation.

Plagued by delays, the Oprah Winfrey Network has also run afoul of controversy prior to its launch. In the run up to its opening, rumors swirled about the possible rigging of votes in the “Search for the Next TV Star” contest (Walker, 2010). Given Oprah’s very obvious connection to the new network, we can conjecture that the same negative publicity that applied to the James Frey incident would likely pertain to this example—even if executives were completely innocent of the allegations, charges of cheating or misconduct had to be addressed in order to avoid damage to the unborn network and Oprah.

Having chosen to create a brand that centers around herself, Oprah has inextricably tied herself to the fortunes of the new network; in exchange for using her name to lend the new channel credence, Oprah runs the risk of personal devaluation should the venture fail. Although Oprah might have accrued enough goodwill to survive even the most devastating blow, any sort of scandal will undoubtedly reflect poorly upon Oprah and any future ventures.


[1] In a somewhat less flattering light, the MTV show Punk’d also performed a similar function for celebrities. Similar to the candid camera shows of generations prior, the Ashton Kutcher vehicle exposed the “true” face of stars in a process that could endear them to the public. More often, however, viewers were able to have a laugh at the celebrities’ expense (with Justin Timberlake being a memorable example) and often exposing them, in Frankie Muniz’s case, as insufferable human beings.

[2] I would also add that Oprah’s choice to relay her story of success despite her trials growing up also affects culture in a couple of important ways. On the surface level, we can see how Oprah’s story can be considered inspirational for those who would wish to follow in her footsteps. Yet, at the same time, Oprah’s background also serves to raise the bar for suffering as audiences question their right to complain as they compare their personal stories to Oprah’s. Although Oprah’s personality lends itself to the aspiration/inspirational interpretation, a larger trend of celebrity/mediated suffering might be that individuals are less inclined to realize the significance of their own situation since it is “not as bad” as what they see on television.

[3] Oprah’s creation of the Angel Network, involvement with Oprah’s Big Give and the creation of the Leadership Academy also work to support this image of Oprah.

[4] Interestingly, Oprah was able to avert a major crisis by responding to the situation through public statements and a follow-up interview with author James Frey. Again possibly working as a spokesperson for larger sentiments, Oprah seemed to win back her audience by conveying her outrage and being duped—a stance likely held by many of the people who had picked up the book at the recommendation of Oprah. In some ways, Oprah became the champion of the people as she confronted the author and the publisher; audience members could rally around Oprah and her power as a media personality allowed her to deliver results that individual viewers could not have hoped to achieve on their own. It might also be noted that Oprah’s Leadership Academy (see previous footnote) also suffered from allegations of misconduct that also served to cast similar doubt on Oprah’s credibility.


Baby Just Say Yes

In the Beginning

For an organization that continually engages in a pattern of employing “filmmaker” or “storyteller” as its foremost descriptor, it seems natural that the non-profit organization Invisible Children demonstrates adeptness at manipulating and managing narrative in order to promote itself and its cause. In some ways, the process of creating a movie echoes the development of an advertising campaign to create, execute, and communicate a point of view or a story, and the overlap between consumer culture, Invisible Children, and narrative provides fertile ground for a discussion about the ways in which these elements intermingle, forming a confluence that swirls around young people and youth identity. Anchored by the relationship between narrative and the creation of immersive content, this essay explores how Invisible Children appropriates themes and techniques into its overall messaging strategy. Building on a sense of appreciation and awareness of storytelling developed by advertising and a mediated society, Invisible Children uses narrative structure to organize and present information in a compelling fashion. To put it another way, narrative allows Invisible Children to string discrete facts together in a way that casts a spell that lingers (Kennedy, 1998). Ultimately, a portion of the non-profit organization’s success can be attributed to its intelligent and appropriate use of narrative given its primary target demographic of high school and college students.

Setting the Stage

An ambushed Jeep outside of a Sudanese refugee camp in 2003 propelled Bobby Bailey, Jason Russel, and Laren Poole, the unsuspecting founders of Invisible Children, into the middle of an ongoing civil war that had spread over parts of Eastern Africa. Led by Joseph Kony, a group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army had been enmeshed in battle for nearly two decades as they rebelled against the presiding Ugandan government. Eventually faced with a lack of soldiers due, in part, to a population worn down by continued conflict, the Lord’s Resistance Army began abducting children in an attempt to bolster their numbers:  males were trained as soldiers while females were made into “wives” and sex slaves. Stolen individuals found themselves indoctrinated with the ideology of the Lord’s Resistance Army and coerced into remaining with the group through fear-based tactics. The terror resulting from this development compelled residents of Northern Uganda to seek the shelter of towns (in this particular instance, Gulu) during the evening, resulting in the creation of “night commuters” as a moniker to describe this new brand of refugee. Moved by their experiences, the filmmakers developed their recorded footage into a documentary entitled Invisible Children:  Rough Cut that focused on the impact of the conflict in Northern Uganda. Initially shown only to friends and family, the movie soon began to infiltrate other outlets, ranging from high schools and colleges to major media centers like CNN and Oprah (Caseley, 2007). Since its original debut, footage from the original version has been supplemented with newer material and recut in preparation for distribution as a feature film.

Alone, the production, and subsequent recognition, of a documentary by recent film school graduates represents a noteworthy achievement. More remarkable, however, is the genesis, and sustained existence, of a group (self-stylized as a “movement” by the organization) dedicated to the eradication of violence perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army in East Africa. Formally known as “Invisible Children, Inc.”—but colloquially referred to simply as “Invisible Children”—the non-profit organization born out of Invisible Children:  Rough Cut has matured since its inception to develop a number of programs aimed at addressing the injustices perpetuated by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

One of the most recent initiatives by Invisible Children is MEND, a project that sells handcrafted bags in an effort to develop marketable skills in formerly abducted women. Tapping into notions of ethical consumerism, MEND has created a culturally-valued item that derives its worth, in part, from its professed commitment to a socially responsible cause.

Although potentially broad in its scope, encompassing terms like “free-trade,” “carbon-neutral,” “buy local,” and “free-range,” ethical consumerism has come to represent a lifestyle that is highly visible in modern American society. Product RED, one of the most pervasive examples of this trend (if not necessarily the most successful), attaches itself to areas as diverse as clothing, coffee, and computing, maintaining its brand through a distinct color scheme and logo. Although critics argue that companies utilize Product RED to sell product or that donations by consumers are more efficient than fundraising through consumption, ethical purchasing represents a different approach to activism by aiming to nudge individuals’ behavior in a pro-social direction instead of necessitating a complete overhaul in the decision-making process (Rosenman, 2007; Sarna-Wojcicki, 2008). Maintaining a connection to consumerism allows a movement like Product RED to tap into an already-develop ethos, affording it the ability to draw on powerful sets of constructed associations. Similarly, conceptualizing Product RED as a brand allows one to readily understand how ethical consumerism integrates itself into the lives of young people through a connection with branding culture that has been building since the middle of the 20th century.

Consumption, a Modern Affliction

The 1960s marked a particular period of unrest in America as Baby Boomers began to clash with the G.I. Generation. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of discourse at this time shifted toward issues of youth culture with deep-seeded frustrations beginning to turn into anger as young adults struggled to define and express their individuality; the anti-establishment movement desperately wanted to break free from the control exuded by the State and corporations, eventually maturing a countercultural sentiment started by the Beat Generation into a milieu that gave birth to hippies and war protests. Baby Boomers, as a demographic group, also occupied a rather unique place in American history, coming into young adulthood during a time of post-war prosperity and the solidification of the middle-class. Suddenly, upward social movement became increasingly possible for a generation that enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income.

Cultural observers quickly noticed the shifting economic trend and began to express their findings in prominent publications of the time; Dwight Macdonald labeled the American teenager as a “merchandising frontier,” a comment that would not go unnoticed by marketing companies looking to capitalize on this new trend (1958). In fact, although the term “teenager” had only recently emerged in literature, companies such as Hires Root Beer had already begun peer-to-peer campaigns among youth in order to promote a product, thus demonstrating recognition of the teenager as a potential consumer (Quart, 2003).

The development of the teenage market, along with the corresponding rise of teen-oriented culture and identity, continues to the present:  seeds sown by Beatlemania have helped to develop an environment that permits fervor for teen idols like Justin Bieber. Perhaps more disconcerting is the relatively recent extension of this phenomenon, with marketers aiming at the “tween” audience (loosely conceptualized as 8-12 years of age) using children’s programming media such as animation and Radio Disney as their chosen vehicles.

The current cultural climate of consumerism and cult of celebrity can cause children to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay. Ultimately, however, brands provide many of the benefits that come with membership to a group and, as such, also serve to define adopters’ identities.

Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment.  In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.

Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.

Ad Captandum

Thinking about the development of modern youth, however, one might not see the packaging process associated with college admission as an anomaly. Children growing up in recent decades have been exposed to large amounts of media and advertising, which has served to cultivate a latent affinity with embedded narrative forms. The term “Adcult,” coined by University of Florida professor James Twitchell, depicts contemporary American society as an arena saturated with the lingering influences of commercialism (1996). Although the phrase results from a combination of “advertising” and “culture,” one can easily imagine Twitchell describing a group whose ideology revolves around concepts of marketing through a play on the word “cult.”

Advertising and branding, largely products of consumer culture, have a rather obvious economic impact; while one can certainly debate the mechanism(s) behind this process, one need only compare similar products with and without marketing schemes to ascertain that advertising can have an impact on manufactured goods. Rooted in the economic sphere, the development and presence of advertising is closely linked to surpluses in products—excess space in media, radio parts, and merchandise have all forwarded the need for, or existence of, advertising—and thusly can be understood in terms of monetary systems. As a pertinent example, compare the presence and impact of advertising on culture before and after the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for the development of excess amounts of merchandise.

Staying solely within the framework of Economics, consider that advertising can help individuals to organize knowledge and to make informed choices about the world. In some ways, advertising tells consumers how their money can be best spent or utilized, given that currency is a limited resource. Yet, while arguably functional, anyone who has experienced a good piece of advertising knows that the reach of marketing exceeds the limits of economics—exemplary ads have the power to make us feel something. Although informal research can support the idea that memorable advertisements often influence us on an emotional level, a study by Stayman and Batra suggests that affective states resulting from advertising exposure can be stored and retrieved for later recall (1991; Roberts, 2005). While the authors freely admit that they did not ascertain the exact mechanism for this process, one might posit that emotional responses to ads could result from the way that advertisements interact with our established belief systems and identity structures.

Continuing in the same vein, Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as Advertising, Religion, Education, or Art, (interestingly some overlap is acceptable but the issue remains murky when, on one end of the spectrum we have Jesuit institutions and debates over the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools on the other) a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. Aspects such as Religion or Advertising tell its believers, in its own way, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of Advertising, Religion, Education, and Art play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external:  God, works of art, name brands, etc. Cynics might note that this phenomenon is not unlike the practice of carnival sideshows mentioned in Twitchell’s Adcult—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (1996). Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.

The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.

Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).

Forging the Connection

Although cultural analysis often points out the negative effects inherent in advertising, the developed techniques are not—like most technology—inherently evil. In recent years, various social movements have begun to take notes from marketers and considered how they might apply time-honored strategies in order to increase youth participation and involvement. Branding provides a way for organizations to develop a unique identity; although most groups understand this concept on some level, some successful movements have been able to cultivate their brand in a way that allows it to connect with youth.

Given the relative fluency of youth with brands and branding concepts, Invisible Children has smartly nurtured its image to align with the lifestyle of its core demographic:  high school and college students. From adopting a currently popular DayGlo-inspired color scheme on its website and apparel to traveling with musical acts (a practice also notably undertaken by anti-suicide group To Write Love on Her Arms), the brand of Invisible Children fits neatly into the ongoing lives of its supporters. Moreover, despite presentation in multiple media channels, the messaging of Invisible Children has remained consistent, allowing each experience to compliment, but not compete with, the others.

Working in conjunction with ethical consumerism and branding, however, is an arguably more influential, if somewhat less perceptible, power. With a stated goal of creating a “personal connection between products and their makers,” MEND pushes their consumers to go from merely buying a product to investing in the process (Invisible Children, 2010); individuals are given the opportunity to go to a website that features the stories of the seamstresses (whose names are also sewn into each bag) in a process that highlights the company’s attention to the importance of narrative in branding.

Looking across Invisible Children, one can sense a strong commitment to using storytelling as a vehicle for message transmission. Indeed, even the origin story of Invisible Children taps into the pervasive myth of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with its depiction of young adventurers traveling into a foreign land on a quest to find and cultivate a narrative. Lured by a sense of mystery into East Africa, an unexpected assault by the Lord’s Resistance Army alters the path of the filmmakers, acting as the impetus to enter into a world fraught with danger and uncertainty:  the realm of the unknown (Russell, Children at War, 2007). Prior to this point, Kenya and Sudan had represented a relatively unfortunate, physically demanding, and sometimes boring wilderness for the team but nothing substantial. With the assistance of various guides (one, a literal guide tasked with driving the group to a nearby refugee camp), Jason, Laren, and Bobby began to glimpse the conflict that underscores the region as they asked a series of questions of the locals. Wholly consumed by their newfound situation, the filmmakers discovered a little-known world of night commuters and child soldiers in Northern Uganda. This alien setting, which “disgusted and inspired,” also presented an opportunity for transformation as filmmakers shed their naïveté and were reborn as crusaders against witnessed injustice (Invisible Children, 2010). Having found their story—the ultimate prize sought at the outset of the journey—the founders of Invisible Children extricated themselves in order to return to their homeland as masters of the unknown and share their insights with their community. The documentarians themselves echo this sentiment in their first production, Invisible Children:  Rough Cut, through a voiceover that proclaims that the group came to Africa as novices but hoped to “leave as warriors” (Bailey, Poole, & Russell, Invisible Children: Rough Cut, 2004). While never explicitly acknowledged as a tool, it seems plausible that self-described storytellers such as Jason, Laren, and Bobby would have integrated successful elements of previous modes of narrative into their production.

Although the real-life nature of Invisible Children’s origin precludes an exact overlay with the steps of Campbell’s monomyth, it is easy to imagine that the retelling of the tale draws some of its power (consciously or unconsciously) from this established structure. For some, the intertwining of narrative and Invisible Children might have seemed inevitable for an organization created by filmmakers/storytellers, born out of a documentary, and focused on recounting a tale of adversity in Uganda.

In a more direct use of narrative, the blog post entitled, “So You’re Having a House Party,” beseeches individuals to introduce Invisible Children into their peer groups, invoking language reminiscent of Evangelism in order to “spread [the] story” (Invisible Children, 2010). Invisible Children appears to place an emphasis on individual narrative as a vehicle, allowing for the development of an emotional connection between audience and subject:  suggestions are made to showcase the story of a particular child (conveniently tied, in one manifestation, to a supplied bracelet that serves to make the narrative even more tangible for participants) or to recount one’s own assimilation into the group (similar, perhaps, to the practice of giving testimony in Evangelical circles).

Continuing the trend of highlighting the importance of personal narrative, the Legacy Tour, launched in Spring 2010, featured 10 Ugandans in regional speaking engagements designed to coincide with movie screenings. In part, the presence of the Ugandans helps to offer what founder Jason Russell terms “proof”—tangible evidence that efforts in the United States make an impact overseas (Russell, Interview With Invisible Children’s Jason Russell, 2010). The Legacy Tour provides a strong example of Invisible Children’s intent to deploy narrative in the service of its messaging, presenting the genesis of the tour as a Ugandan’s desire to tell her story and featuring speaker profiles that prominently contain a “their story” component (Invisible Children, 2010). Yet, perhaps more importantly, the Ugandans also serve as immediate, and dynamic, visual manifestations of the story told by Invisible Children:  Rough Cut, lending the movie, and the organization, a measure of perceived authenticity and credibility (Berlo, Lemert, & Mertz, 1969).

In a move that suggests Invisible Children’s familiarity with media literacy, along with a respect for the ways in which media is used by youth, the organization appears to have taken an approach to persuasion rooted in emotionality and vividness, circumventing logical appeals. Given their target demographic, one might consider the organization’s choice apt as potentially restless teenagers may not be inclined to sit through a well-reasoned, but ultimately drab, speech. Vividness, on the other hand, indicates that the material is emotionally interesting, image provoking, and proximate (Sherer & Rogers, 1984; Nesbit & Ross, 1980)—cues that seem salient when discussing youth with variable attention spans and interest. Although participants of these parties most likely do not stop to consider the processes at work, the creation and careful cultivation of affective ties helps to bind them to the project.

The Medium Is the Message

In addition to the content, structuring the message as a narrative helps to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Confronted with the magnitude of the situation in Uganda for the first time, prospective members might find themselves paralyzed as a seemingly insurmountable problem is presented. Personal narratives, however, provide a relatively simple path that cuts through the chaos and allows audiences to focus. Preachers, for example, might utilize a parable to illustrate a point, giving audiences something familiar to relate to while simultaneously introducing a new idea. In a larger sense, we can also consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors one of the previously discussed functions of advertising; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn intricate lessons without any overt effort. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.

For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman, 2004; Williams, 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell, 2004). The ramifications of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound:  with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.

The notion of narrative’s impact on the sense of self is an interesting one to consider, particularly in youth-oriented marketing, as it affects individuals who are in the process of forming their identities (as opposed to adults whose self-concepts might be, one might argue, more static); in a process analogous to branding, adolescents try on different personalities like clothes, looking to see what fits. While not entirely insidious, teen marketing can exploit this natural process by providing shortcuts to identity through the power of branding. Altering perceptions, branding can activate particular sets of associations that have been engrained into us by marketing and therefore act as a heuristic of value for youth. For teenagers navigating the social circles of their peer groups, labels can make an enormous difference.

Stories, it seems, not only allow us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also afford us the ability to share our interpretations with others (Short, et al., 1994). Indeed, author Stephen Greenblatt mentions that a sort of compulsiveness exists that is intrinsic to storytelling (1991). The function, then, of narrative is not only to shape a community, but also to create (or at least maintain) it. The process of sharing not only relays information—an important function, to be sure—but also serves to cultivate the bonds between source and receiver. Sharing represents an important component of storytelling as it facilitates a sense of community with a successful story anchoring an individual’s commitment to a community, strengthening the overall cause.

Everything Old Is New Again

Invisible Children also demonstrates a sensitivity to the power of social networks with initiatives like the aforementioned house party, a practice that recalls a slightly older tradition that was once engrained in suburban American culture:  the Tupperware party. While Invisible Children’s gatherings might not aim to sell a physical good, they nevertheless hope to push a product. Both sets of situations can capitalize on interpersonal dynamics between host and guest in order to increase the success of their efforts:  a sense of obligation from guests can translate into an inclination to buy a product (or an idea) while guests’ personal feelings toward the host (e.g., the concept of “liking”) might also increase their willingness to comply with requests to join an organization (Cialdini, 2009). The notion of the house party also benefits from an invocation of similarity principles in personal selling as hosts strive to develop rapport with their guests during a low-risk decision-making process (Weitz, 1981). Although Invisible Children does not present any data regarding the effectiveness of the house parties, the events seem effective as they require little effort on the part of the sponsoring organization and have also been adopted by other community-based organizations such as Planned Parenthood in an effort to increase their support base while simultaneously informing others about their cause (Planned Parenthood, 2010).

Yet, despite the strong effects of its interpersonal strategies, Invisible Children’s success may have resulted most from its savvy use of media in its efforts to connect with its supporters. Spreading over Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, a blog, and in-person outreach, Invisible Children seems to have been able to tap into the sensibilities of their target demographic, again allowing young people to seamlessly integrate Invisible Children into their lives without exerting additional effort. Amazingly, Invisible Children not only seems to have the ability to use its various channels—from media, to street art, to fashion shows, to dance—in ways that connect to its supporters, but also to innovate cross-media promotions that elicit positive responses. At a recent fundraiser, for example, Invisible Children asked its followers to tweet in (i.e., send messages using Twitter) messages that would then be incorporated into a live street art installation (Invisible Children, 2010).

The cornerstone of Invisible Children’s media is the documentary Invisible Children:  Rough Cut. Viewed as a movie that should both educate and inspire, founder Jason Russell suggests that audiences with no foreknowledge of Uganda or Joseph Kony should be incited to action (Russell, Interview With Invisible Children’s Jason Russell, 2010). As a production piece, Invisible Children:  Rough Cut evidences many of the groups’ methods, including an emphasis on personal narrative and a thematic fit with youth lifestyle. The opening of the film is noteworthy in this regard for it pairs a profile piece of Northern Uganda featuring a single child walking alone at night with a reality-show style confessional by Jason prior to the start of the trip.  This juxtaposition of narrative sets the tone for the remainder of the movie, asking audiences to consider how the notion of “the journey” pervades the experiences of the featured individuals and additionally develops a sense of intimacy between the two figures.

Described as a “wonderfully reckless documentary [that] is fast paced, with an MTV beat,” even the structure of the film caters to the sensibilities of its intended audience. During an opening sequence, the filmmakers have chosen to weave together three disjointed storylines, trusting that their audience is intelligent enough to keep pace while simultaneously forcing individuals to engage with the material (Invisible Children, 2007). Editing also placed, in succession, an assertion by Jason, “I think it will be fun,” followed by a Laren’s contradictory statement, “I’m not about fun,” thus invoking a familiar pattern utilized in youth-oriented television shows to elicit a laugh from the audience (Bailey, Poole, & Russell, Invisible Children: Rough Cut, 2004). Additionally, the seemingly superfluous inclusion of a vomiting montage again suggests an awareness of the target audience as filmmakers incorporate scenes similar to those found in the MTV show “Jackass,” or, more specifically, “Wildboyz” with its nature-at-large component.

Also notable are the videos that Invisible Children produces—currently over 80 are available to view on the organization’s website (Invisible Children, 2010)—along with hundreds of amateur movies uploaded to sites like YouTube. The incorporation of this particular medium into the group’s messaging structure suggests an awareness and respect for the ways in which contemporary youth choose to explore and learn about their world. The differing styles of visual presentation, ranging from humorous to documentary to commercial, provide multiple entry points for a diverse audience. Although seemingly contradictory, specifically targeted messages can actually increase reception among a varied viewer base—not every viewer will enjoy watching every video but should be able to find at least one that he or she relates to—as recent GEICO insurance commercials have demonstrated.

One video, in particular, presents an interesting example of Invisible Children’s philosophy toward media messaging and relevancy:  originally released as a podcast in April 2006, “A Musical to Believe In” heavily borrows from the 1986 short movie Captain EO. Starting off with an establishing shot of an all-too-familiar high school assembly taking place in a gymnasium, Invisible Children allows audiences to identify with their on-screen peers. Bored, restless, and jaded, the fictional gathering is presented with what seems to be yet another guest speaker. Standing in for the viewing audience, members of the assembly challenge the founders as authority figures and ask for next steps. Momentarily taken aback by the resistance to their cause, the founders huddle and ultimately decide to invoke the notion of spectacle in order to win their detractors over with something “huge, big, and flashy” (Bailey, Poole, & Russell, A Musical to Believe In, 2006). Entering into a fantasy sequence, the founders of Invisible Children begin to dance, emit transformative beams of light, and sing about how young people can save the world. Comparing this sequence to Captain EO, one can immediately begin to sense the overlap between the two productions with “A Musical to Believe In” even modifying the Michael Jackson song “We Can Change the World” in an effort to speak more directly to the upcoming Global Night Commute event. One slight change, however, was that, in an aesthetic that would shortly become popularized through lip dub, “A Musical to Believe In” planted itself firmly in the environment of the high school. Utilizing an aspect of cognitive elaboration, Invisible Children’s video featured scenes that the average student could potentially relate to (e.g., gym and library), which allowed audiences to understand and process the material in a meaningful context.

One source of the video’s power can be understood in terms of its ability to tap into its audience’s cultural capital—a sort of collective unconscious—in order to evoke a set of associations created around the original production. Although the resonance with Captain EO might elicit a feeling of nostalgia from the subset of Invisible Children’s demographic whose youth coincided with the run of the film, the stronger success of “A Musical to Believe In” is its ability to appropriate a previously well-crafted narrative—the original cost approximately $30 million to produce (MacDonald B. , 2009)—updating it to fit modern viewers’ sensibilities. In particular, Captain EO, presents a potent blend of two narrative threads:  one speaks to teenage notions of rebellion and the psychological principle of reactance while the other challenges individuals to cultivate meaning and a purpose.

Evident from the title of the parent song, and the repeated phrase of “We can change the world,” the founders of Invisible Children wish to combat the notion that the typical high school student cannot make a difference, thereby empowering teenagers to act. Interestingly, however, the similarity to Captain EO suggests that the founders (who, at this point are also representative of light, music, fun, and, one may surmise, Good) are fighting against the greater evil of ignorance and apathy (analogous to the Supreme Leader of Captain EO) to convert individuals. By causing youth who are a part of Invisible Children to see themselves as oppositional to a larger detractive force, the founders have managed to apply principles of community building in order to develop cohesion among their constituents.

Adding to the complexity of the piece, the title “A Musical to Believe In” calls to mind the oft-used phrase “something to believe in” and subtly suggests that the issue presented by Invisible Children can, in fact, give searching students a sense of purpose and value. Tapping into the human desire to matter, “A Musical to Believe In” might imply to students that participating in the Global Night Commute was a meaningful gesture, thereby channeling the aforementioned desire for action created by the video.

Putting on a Show

 

Spectacular, Spectacular!

No words in the vernacular

Can describe this great event;

You’ll be dumb with wonderment.

 

-“Spectacular Spectacular,” Moulin Rouge!

The mention of “spectacle” in the opening sequence of “A Musical to Believe In” raises an interesting and pertinent question:  What is the role of the spectacular in Invisible Children’s media? As evidenced by the video, the founders of Invisible Children view spectacle as an effective means of capturing the attention of their demographic. Given the response to Invisible Children’s messaging—one can measure this in terms of membership, funds raised, or activity—the organization appears to have indeed discovered a point of resonance with viewers. This, then, prompts an inquiry into why the youth demographic is poised to respond to spectacle as a means of message transmission.

One possible theory for the popularity of spectacle draws upon an understanding of youth as individuals who have developed in an environment saturated with media and consumed by branding culture. This idea of spectacle has become increasingly normalized in recent years— becoming almost interchangeable with entertainment, particularly the areas of movies and television—with the concept of event viewing or, as a specific example, “Must See TV.” Although not necessarily able to articulate the effects of their exposure, teenagers who have been immersed in narrative structures since birth undoubtedly incorporate existing forms to contextualize and analyze the world around them. Primed to respond to narrative, youth see the spectacle as a fantastical creation that acts to bridge the gap between ethereal story and concrete reality—it is, as Progressive and professor Stephen Duncombe would suggest, a “dream on display” (2007).

Duncombe’s choice of “dream” builds upon spectacle as an amassment of intertwining narrative threads, expanding the concept into a more fully realized landscape that proposes an alternate vision for the future. A dream, as a work of fiction, possesses a power that allows individuals to not only imagine how the world could be, but also how the world should be and how these environments differ from the world as it is. Thinking back to Invisible Children’s goal of transformative change in Northern Uganda, it seems, then, that spectacle presents a fitting mechanism for the conveyance of the organization’s platform.

Into the Sunset

In a process exemplified by the overlap of Invisible Children:  Rough Cut with the Hero’s Journey, Invisible Children has discovered a method of employing storytelling that taps into the deeply-engrained archetypes held by youth, thereby transforming itself from an organization that merely utilizes branding techniques into a full-fledged brand. Capitalizing on schema developed through millions of dollars of advertising and media budgets, the organization has implemented an approach that targets an entertainment-saturated population, but not one that is necessarily media literate.