When the Stakes are High

SwingLeslie Dorough Smith wrote a post the other day on how we all resort to telling origins stories. As she noted, it’s a common rhetorical technique used when selling products and when talking about ourselves, either as individuals or as group members of nations, religions etc. No doubt we do tell origins stories and create myths to prove our worth: “I was here first!” says the little kid when competing for the swing.

But what Leslie’s post made me think of is why and when we give way to this technique. It seems to me that individuals and groups succumb to this rhetorical technique to secure a certain position—whether that is to gain a status of worthiness in relation to a friend or among family members or as groups in relations to other groups—when either the maintenance of the status is fragile or, as with kids at the swing, threatened by another challenger (real or imagined). We therefore use this technique when the stakes are high and this is fairly important for us to recognize.

To return to Leslie’s example of the way we use narratives to sell sofas, apparently, between “Design within Reach” and “Target” the stakes are different not only in terms of the target group they aim at (their potential customers), but also in relation to the different places in competing markets they each try to occupy. In the case of “Design within Reach” this place is likely more fragile and competitive and therefore there is stronger need to not just sell a “good” product but also to dress it with a story that’s sounds worth telling (and therefore selling/buying). Origins discourse thus regulates competitive economies of identity and status.

To take, though, the above syllogism a bit further, I would say, that origins tales and mythic narratives of glorious pasts (not to forget of course “tradition” discourses), are in fact used more often among nations who are under crisis (whether political, economic, etc.), when the stakes are high and the need to maintain or gain a certain social status, and the benefits that follows it, is of immense importance. Borders of nations are thus maintained, identities are therefore united since “origins” serve, after all, as the common denominator.

To return yet again to Leslie’s example, companies such as “Design within Reach” try to sell not just a product but a lifestyle, as well, that will unite their customers not only in terms of owning a very expensive (no doubt) product but also as members now of an “imagined” community with a certain social/economic status. Therefore, the resort to this technique seems simultaneously to reinforce membership coherence within a group, on the one hand, while also ensuring this group has but beneficial status among other groups, on the other.

But surely this is not a simple process and a great many apparatuses are turning their wheels to make a story successful; for I imagine “Design within Reach” invests a considerable amount of money on board meetings and discussions, assigning to the advertising experts to come up with stories among which the board will have to choose, authorizing the one that will eventually make their product, and the lifestyle and identity that apparently comes with it, a commodity worth valuing and buying!

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