The myth-making power of advertising & propaganda. Nine concepts that change(d) the world!

November 12, 2008


We’ve been discussing the idea that certain campaigns create myths out of their subjects, allowing them to transcend, or, in some case replace reality. A perfect modern example is Apple. While the product is truly excellent, ever since its “1984” TV commercial, Apple has obtained and maintained cult like status. With its super-sleek design, packaging and advertising, Apple is way more than hardware -it’s Lifeware. Few would argue the point, especially those of us in advertising and design! We blissfully drink the Kool-Aid. We Think Different.

Who or what has achieved myth-like proportions on account of its propaganda? I’d like to offer my notorious nine. (I couldn’t think of a tenth). A few criteria for making this list are that all on it must be on it forever, no flashes-in-the pan. Items must be global in scope, transcending specific cultures. Finally, advertising and/or propaganda must be a primary driver of the entity’s success. Here they are, in no particular order:

1.   God & Heaven Be you Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or miscellaneous, you are praying to something that you have no tangible evidence exists. This is by far the best and most obvious example of my point. From the Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s all based on man-made propaganda. Scripture is body copy. The Crucifix is a logo. For more (way more) on this provocative notion, I humbly beseech you to read my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry.

2.   Bottled water Even though countless simple and irrefutable tests have proven bottled water to be no more pure or better for you than most tap water, a staggering majority of us still believe ads that tell us it is. My wife is one such person. Despite my tirades, she continues to bring cases of it into our house every week. I give up.

3.   Apple (see above)

4.   Nike Because of his compelling rhetoric and charismatic persona, a lowly carpenter, Jesus became no less than a Messiah -his creed perhaps the most followed religion in the world. Because of compelling rhetoric and the charismatic persona of a mere basketball player (Michael Jordan), a lowly gym shoe became the Shoes, –its creed a clarion call for anyone who has ever broken a sweat. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

5.   The British Empire Royals change but the loyal following never does. There is no logical reason why Princes and Queens continue to exist but they do… in England as well as in all our imaginations. The constant, loud discussion of these figures is what drives their popularity. They are important merely for existing. It’s odd, vaguely annoying, and a global phenomenon.

6.   Hollywood The hype, glitz, spin, fame, and glamour of La La Land. Words and pictures about words and pictures. The town can’t help it. It is what it is and has been ever since the “talkies.” More so than DC or NYC, LA’s Hollywood maintains its ridiculous and sublime image. Hurray for Hollywood!

7.   Death As soon as we are born we begin dying. It happens to the best of us. The great equalizer is the most enigmatic concept in the world. Pyramids have been built to house dead people. The best real estate in the world contains dead people. Nothing scares or motivates us like Death. Despite its absolute certainty, we all are uncertain of what Death really means or feels like. We have only our stories, beliefs and memories. Death is the ultimate myth.

8.   Target Their “Design for Everyone” mantra captivated America, redefining the value proposition. Cheap became Chic. Will this mythology carry it through this recession? How about the next boom time?

9.   Starbucks How many of us visit this temple every morning? Grande Skim Lattes. We even speak in tongues! One argument against this selection would be the conspicuous lack of advertising. To their credit, much of Starbuck’s myth is organic. Word of mouth was the first advertising. It’s still the best.

I would have liked to put “America” on this list but as evidenced by current events, our brand changes, for better and for worse. Inspiring belief, our new President certainly has rekindled the potential for America’s myth. We’ll see.

Another notable exclusion are celebrities, alive or dead. Sure, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis are icons. But of what: Sex? Talent? Dying badly? Perhaps they comprise part of bigger myths like Hollywood and the UK?

Last detail: I did not put Altoids on the list. It is the closest thing I’ve got in my portfolio to a mythical brand but I was uncomfortable promoting it here. What do you think, Gentle Reader? Did I miss one or get one wrong?


18 Responses to “The myth-making power of advertising & propaganda. Nine concepts that change(d) the world!”

  1. Brendan said

    What about your beloved Chicago Cubs?
    There’s a myth about a guy who pushes a rock up the hill only to have it be pushed back down…for the rest of eternity. Futility. Curses. Blind obedience. Are these not your criteria?

  2. Voice of reason said

    Oh, go ahead and put Altoids on your list. You know you want to.
    Seriously, this is a wild and wooly list, stefan.
    But I like it!

  3. Sarah J said

    10. Disney? (see “Sorry Mickey…” -Aug, 29)

  4. Sarah-
    OMG, Disney.
    You’d think I’d of remembered given I go Fight club on them in my novel…and I’ve blogged about their awesome (aka evil) power.
    I must be in denial.
    Good call.

  5. Ad Broad said

    Great list. And, yep, I’d add Altoids. But what about Obama? If Ad Age can name him Marketer of the Year, surely he and his genius myth makers deserve a mention?

  6. SRP said

    Thanks Ad Broad-
    The reason I passed on putting BO on list is he did not met the criteria of long-lasting. Right now he is but a glorious flash. Time will tell. And even then, he will be replaced inevitably.

  7. copycat said


    Whether your love it or not, McD’s is alive and well, the world over.

    I mean, how many people walk into a Burger King and ask for a Quarter Pounder? Quite a few, I bet.

  8. Andy Webb said

    What about Coca-Cola? Carbonated water, flavors and a whole pile of sugar. It surely didn’t become a world-wide icon on its nutritional merits.

    As we learn from the side of the can I’m drinking from right now, Coca-Cola in Mandarin means “delicious happiness.” Of course, an early billboard for the product in China roughly translated to “bite the wax cowboy.”

  9. SRP said

    I agree Coca Cola is huge, global brand.
    where I struggle is with the myth. Is it “connectivity” or “refreshment” and isn’t that just strategy anyway? I put McDonald’s into this same category: huge, global, and strategically fixed. But what is the myth?

  10. Andy Webb said

    Steffan, I hear you, and thought about that stuff, too. What made me submit it to the blog was its curiously American symbolism. Go just about anywhere in the world and Coke says “American” like the stars and stripes. I’ve traveled the Philippines a few times and have seen how people desire American brands — call it the myth of American status. Maybe Coke is more icon than myth, but that American-ness made me pull the trigger, not to mention that long-term marketing was definitely the driver.

  11. dtwhitlock said

    I’d offer New York City. It’s a city whose myth has been (and continues to be) created by propaganda. It never sleeps. It is the ultimate place for the ultimate celebration (Times Square on New Year’s Eve). And only in NYC can you find romance atop the Empire State building.

    It’s where immigrants landed in hopes of starting a new life. And because of the mythical dream (if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere), people all across the world want to start their life in America in NYC.

    The world watched during the 9/11 tragedy and rooted for it to return to greatness. It’s myth is promoted in all forms of communication–song, film, stage, TV, advertising. And its citizens are brand ambassadors.

  12. SRP said

    Good argumnt for the “Big Apple.”
    I thought about NYC (and for that matter Paris, Rome, DC, & others) but Hollywood stood out as the one “myth” that means the same world-over and was made entirely by propaganda.

  13. larry postaer said

    Think “Credit Cards” might’ve made a 10th. Believe AmEx started it mostly for business purposes and a gazillion consumer-in-debt dollars later we haven’t heard the end of their impact yet.

    For an iconic brand, albeit not what it once was, VW might’ve been another. The acceptance here of small and foreign and efficient cars, not to mention their ads that changed everything for us.

  14. Colleen said

    For your wife: Dasani is planning to bottle water from the Willamette here in PDX– one of the dirtiest rivers in the US, since it suffers industrial pollution and even sewage overflow during heavy rains. Go tap water!

  15. Andy Webb said

    Credit cards — very interesting, Larry. The myth being you can simply buy anything you want, any time you want, seemingly without actually paying for it.

  16. Katie K said

    I love the list. I like that you refer to Starbucks as a temple people visit. And your right, word of mouth is still the most effective form of advertisement any company could ask for.

    And I think Target will live on during the recession because they already have the image in the mind of consumers as a more affordable store. People are going to bring their business to places like that where they can get more for their money. Plus, everyone loves Target holiday season ads and those can only help add to the companies popularity.

  17. Super page:) will visit soon..

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