It’s pretty rare that I pay to see a movie twice but along with Mad Max: Fury Road the new Star Wars sequel was totally worth it! To be fair I was already a big enough fan to binge-watch the trilogy with mates before going to see it but that doesn’t even put me near the middle of pack when it comes to the Star Wars fan base. It’s one of the rare franchises that literally has a cult following. One so large that Jedi is an official religion. Ignoring the prequels, the franchise somehow created a world that just but want to be part of, and characters that you feel in love with.
It’s easy to just put its popularity down to things like visual effects, space battles and lightsabres, the sexy chemistry of a young Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. But if we look back at when the original came out none of these are unique to Star Wars.
The original came out in 1977, almost 10 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey – a Kubrick masterpiece that broke new boundaries in visual effects and told a story that was far more nuanced and interesting than anything we will ever see in Star Wars. And in that decade we also saw the release of other smart, well-made franchises with popular actors – from Planet of the Apes to Battlestar Galactica – yet nothing has come close the capturing the imagination and the following of Star Wars. So what did Star Wars do so differently?
To answer that we have to go back to the 1940s, when an incredibly curious young author named Joseph Campbell set out on a journey to find purpose and meaning in his life. He was obsessed with stories and mythology, from Native American ones, to those from India and East Asia. And in studying the stories of mythical heroes and their journeys, he hoped to find some answers to his own purpose. What he found was that from the thousands of stories of protagonists a single universal story began to appear. The Monomyth.
In the Monomyth, Luke Skywalker begins his journey as an outsider, out of place in an ordinary world, where he unexpectedly receives a message – a call to action from a mysterious stranger called Hagrid. Harry then then receives a new weapon like a magical wand and/or some wisdom from old wizard like Gandalf, and sets out on his journey (sometimes with a group of friends or allies). Rae then faces all number of challenges, traps and villains. She beats of all them until she meets her nemesis, Kylo Ren. She is captured or has some kind of setback. Sometimes our hero comes close to death or actually dies, only to be reborn stronger and smarter than ever and goes back into the Matrix to defeat Agent Smith and save the world/universe. It’s actually a bit amusing that a lot of criticism of the Force Awakens is that it’s a lot like the original. You can watch Campbell himself talk about the Monomyth in Star Wars here.
The monomyth is everywhere, and we just can’t seem to get enough. It works because it draws from deep unquenchable and universal human needs - our search for identity, status and purpose in life. When the hero is told they're special we project ourselves into their shoes. When the world is split into good and evil, and our hero joins the fight, we share that feeling of having a clear purpose. And when people look up in awe at our hero, we feel better about ourselves.
If anything, the power of the monomyth is stronger today than it ever was. In the last 40 or so years we’ve seen the breakdown of the hierarchies and structures that for all of human history gave people a sense of identity through their jobs, religion or class. We are now all individuals with never-seen-before social freedom. And with that comes the challenge of finding our own purpose and creating our own identity among the infinite possibilities the modern world has to offer.
We are no longer driven by the pursuit of happiness but by the pursuit of purpose and a search for identity, and even consumerism can’t fully give us what we seek. Which is why the idea of receiving a call from a mysterious stranger to go out onto journey to join the fight between good and evil is more than a little enticing.
Smart organisations understand this, and make it a core part of not just their comms language but of the campaign and organisational strategy. They understand that to win, you have to grow. And to grow you need more than people to just care about your issue. You need a story that pulls on something deep and emotional. You need something that allows people to project their own imagination, hopes and dreams onto the cause and make it their own. And to do this you need to make your supporters the heroes – while you take on the role of the mysterious stranger or the wise Jedi that helps them on their journey of self-discovery and self-actualisation.
You can see a bit of this in action from the first few paragraphs of this email from “Barack Obama”. He calls for “your” help, and even touches on the shared “Democratic values we all hold dear”.
Yes, after getting a 1000 calls to ‘Sign the Petition’ or “Donate just $5” it begins to sound less like a call to save the world from the Death Star and more like spam from a Nigerian prince, but just The Force Awakens, the 2008 Obama campaign was an international blockbuster hit for that reason.
If you look closely at speeches and campaign material from that time, you’ll find that he rarely talks about himself as a solution or hero. One of the most beautiful examples of this technique in action is in this campaign video from his re-election campaign. In the space of a couple of minutes he makes himself more relatable and empowers the audience with a sense of agency, letting them feel that they’re the heroes who are going to change the world.
The monomyth is ultimately just a tool. And that means it can be used for both good and evil. I’m pretty sure if you scanned through ISIS propaganda you’d find it there. As you would find it in good campaigns from every political party, religious text or cause that has ever meant anything to anybody anywhere.
There are unfortunately two Death Star-sized problems with this approach. The first is a paradox I struggle with every day. I studied a lot of math as an undergrad engineer and we often used simplifying mathematical models on complex problems. And ‘The Hero’s Journey’ Monomyth does the same for reality. It takes something that’s full of nuance, contradictions and tradeoffs, and simplifies it so that people can take action without having to make a thousand morally complex decisions. It’s efficient, but comes at the cost of nuance. Unfortunately, reality is nuanced. And as soon as you paint the other side as the villains they bunker down and have less reason to ever come to the table to find a workable solution.
I’ve spent a decent chunk of my 20s working on climate change, and I can honestly say you don’t run into many people who are actually malicious. It’s a very small number of people who spend their time trying to deny the science. Most of the resistance to good climate policy comes from everyday folks who just happen to have different values, families to look out for, cultural differences and concerns that are totally legitimate in a democratic society. Just look at the resistance to decent public transport and higher density housing in Auckland.
Overuse of one simple story leads to your supporters seeing an issue as being ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Seeing the world as ‘us’ vs ‘them’ leads to people believing that the ends justify the means. And that I’m pretty sure leads to the dark side. The story becomes more powerful than the storyteller. There is no better place to see this play out over and over again than in the USA. Especially on something like gun ownership, where a simple story about “good guys with guns” seems immune to reality.
Which leads to the second Death Star. Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke more than just a lightsabre, – he gave him something far more powerful, he gave him a source of wisdom, and the ability to use the Force. When we take on Obi Wan’s role in our campaigns, we do the same. Whether we intend to or not – we teach our supporters how to gain and wield power. So do we show them that to get what you want you have to always be the loudest and angriest voices? Does winning require shutting down internal debate and ideological purity? Is it a waste of time to try and bring people together around shared values and goals?
I’ll be the first to admit it’s not easy to decide when it’s appropriate to speak softly or use the big stick. It’s hard to really know when you’ve gone from being the powerless to the one wielding power. And it’s a LOT easier to get funding, supporters and media coverage when we break things down to simple black and white messages. The actions that we ask our supporters to take do more to define the values our movements than anything we say we stand for in our speeches, websites and meetings. And we do have to take great care that we aren’t reinforcing the values that created the problem we’re trying to fix.
If you’re working on progressive campaigns and want to chat comms and strategy, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @kirkserpes