Review: Winning the story wars, by Jonah Sachs

storywarsRecently a friend of Share Wars drew our attention to book titled Winning the Story Wars.

The two main words on the book’s cover are “Story Wars”, and given that the book mentioned social networks, the friend thought it may have been a rip off of Share Wars.

That is not the case. Winning the Story Wars is written by marketer Jonah Sachs, and I am glad its title is similar to the name of our project: it led me to read the book.

Story Wars is excellent. Like several recent marketing-based books, this is a call to arms, a call to reject the emptiness of greed and the pretence of responsibility in favour of authenticity and telling the truth.

Unlike Share Wars, it is aimed at marketers and anyone else interested in selling product. In that way it is more similar to a lot of literature in the genre – such as the work of Jonah Berger and Dan Zarella.

Where Winning the Story Wars becomes relevant for our project is in its focus on ancient story archetypes as the basis of modern storytelling.

Sachs’ book takes its own advice – advice that to truly captivate an audience, your story must cast the world in clear terms of good and bad and describe the epic struggle between them.

The good in Sachs’ world is authentic, empowerment advertising. The bad is advertising that manipulates and amplifies anxiety. These two marketing strategies are locked in a death struggle, the rare authentic advertising triumphant where it appears but everywhere beset by the dark hoard of anxiety ads.

Sachs also takes his own advice that to be noticed, you have to be talking about something important. The stakes in his book are high – the future of humanity depends on our ability to bridge the “myth gap” and start telling tales that motivate people to the good.

It’s all highly self-referential.

Winning the Story Wars, which is a short book, has a number of key points. First, there are marketing’s three commandments:

  • Be interesting
  • Tell the truth
  • Live the truth

There are also five deadly sins to go with those commandments: Vanity, Authority, Puffery, Insincerity and Gimmickry.

These two sets of directives tell you how to behave if you are a marketer, and appear to be excellent advice. Of more direct relevance to us at Share Wars is scholar Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey myth formula. Sachs sees the Hero’s Journey as the perfect way to construct an empowerment ad campaign.

Under Sachs’ analysis, brands in empowerment campaigns become mentors to the brand heroes, the consumers themselves. Thus Nike is the tough mentor in its campaigns that build strength not from convenience but from its opposite: telling the audience that there is no gain without sacrifice.

Contrast this with ads that encourage anxiety (an example given is Listerine and a campaign that encouraged people to worry about bad breath) and cast the brands as the heroes who solve the problem.

It occurred to me that the story we weave around the Share Wars project itself could do with a heroic makeover.

In our characterisation of the old world of traditional media and the new world of audience-centric digital publishers we have a classic divide. The fact that the two worlds are closely related has blinded us to the fact that one is a dark reflection of the other. And it’s not the newcomer who’s rotten.

We have failed to demonise past practices and attitudes. We have been too understanding of the failings that have led giant media companies to their impending deaths. We have excused legacy media’s wilful blindness to the interests of their audience and therefore themselves.

Are the stakes high? You bet they are. A frail few – those who understand how digital news works and read obscure social networking blogs – stand between media and the open grave. There is a future, but it is neither easy nor assured.

This is the lesson of Winning the Story Wars: people understand and like stories that are true, meaningful and easy to grasp. Not only do we need to understand the stories that we analyse in this light, we need to cast our own stories this way.

Why? Stories are a basic building block of life. They are the vehicles that deliver meaning into all that we do. People care more about stories than almost anything else. As Sachs notes in a chapter heading I found chilling:

“All wars are story wars.”

*You could be forgiven for getting confused about social networking authors. There is Jonah Peretti, Jonah Berger and now Jonah Sachs.

Hal Crawford

About Hal Crawford

Hal Crawford is ninemsn's Editor-in-Chief. He began his career at The West Australian newspaper and has taught journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Twitter: @halcrawford

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