It’s easy to forget the nation we once enjoyed and that, as a nation, we once enjoyed each other a lot more than we do now. There were competing narratives–Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair did not align with our school-issued Muzzey ‘American Readers’. We disagreed about which characters were our heroes–but there was still one story, as hard as that may be now to believe. On the rough outline of the conversation, at least, we agreed.
Post-Truth Sales & Marketing
Before we go figuring out a “post-truth marketing and sales strategy”, let’s consider whether we need to make something new or return to something we’ve always had. To do that, we need to resist the temptation, for a moment to act as if everything important happened in the last twenty or thirty years, with all do respect to the Millennial generation. Perhaps there’s something still relevant about where we came from, that’s worth exploring.
I grew up looking forward to Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon TV matinees. But I also grew up in an era in which a child could watch the news, and it was a window into the thoughts and concerns of adults. It was coherent, often riveting, and we didn’t have to question every inflection, word, or claim. Perhaps we might be confused about the facts, but never whether or not there were facts at all.
In a post-truth environment, all dialogues begins to fail. How do you connect with customers when we’re not sure if truth exists, and there is no bedrock of mutual assumptions? Now, it is perhaps business leaders who remain the only guardians of a shared narrative, and it is up to us to rediscover its roots.
We Agreed to Disagree
Acknowledging the protests in the streets, the gangs and revolutionary units, and the often extreme and excessive actions of states and law enforcement in response, we nonetheless weren’t really at each other’s throats. We still had a shared narrative in the United States. We disagreed, often vigorously and tangibly, but we disagreed within a story of us that was big enough for us to explore together.
If you’re over forty, perhaps you remember. It was an era, for a while, in which Sesame Street tackled issues of race and gender, without being shrill or calling for crucifixions (political correctness didn’t exist). Evening sitcoms, in the hands of Norman Lear (Good Times, All in the Family, The Jeffersons) and Larry Gelbart (MASH), took on serious issues and we watched together, even if we came out with slightly different attitudes. Lear intended Archie Bunker to be a satire on traditional attitudes, and yet traditionalists loved Archie and loved the show. Carroll O’Connor’s character was a more fully expressed version of Ralph Cramden from Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners–saying things that, right or wrong, we all at one time thought or felt. And the Left laughed right along, unable to look away, because we were being real, honest, and human about it, and both Left and Right still valued trueness more than ideology. We watched together. We debriefed together. We were ‘all in one family’ ourselves.
We were a people, with a shared version of the issues at hand and a shared willingness to sit down and watch and listen before we speak. When we did speak, the discussion of cultural, social, and political issues was not always but frequently civil (“fake news” did not exist). The Dick Cavett Show and, often enough, Firing Line (William F. Buckley’s debate forum) are solid examples. “Often-enough” was the whole point. We could have some pretty harsh things said on Cavett’s show over the war in Vietnam, but we came back to a center of mutual regard that held. Yes, the center held, to cite Yeat’s poem. That was then. And the reason I choose to remember it, is that it had so much power then and perhaps for now.
We Knew the Same Things
Some of you may actually remember the “family TV set” – that centerpiece of the living room we could all gather around, neither listening through ear buds nor heads down in our phones. There was magic in that. It wasn’t a gaming console. It was the natural evolution of the family radio around which families had lingered during WWII. Something about that centrality, within the family, even as families were concerned with too “much” TV, put us on a shared footing–one the internet and social media has never reproduced.
Some of the moments I recall:
- 48 years ago I watched Jim Garrison put Clay Shaw on trial for the Kennedy Assassination.
- 45 years ago I watched MASH (the series) portray the Korean War as a metaphor that everyone understood represented the conflict in Viet Nam and Laos, as around us men went and died and came back scarred and broken.
- 44 years ago I watched All in the Family–”Archie Bunker” (Season 3, Episode 20) portray a hate crime on television (swastika painted on the door).
- 43 years ago I watched Dan Rather question Richard Nixon and saw Watergate unfold and waited with adults in the gas lines during the OPEC oil crisis. The McNeil/Lehr Report on PBS covered those hearings “gavel to gavel”.
- 42 years ago Gerald Ford appeared on Meet the Press, underscoring a level of press access to Washington that was unprecedented and, for a moment, promising.
- 40 years ago I debated ownership of the Panama Canal with classmates as Carter signed the treaty (also on TV), to be recalled 12 years later as the US invaded Panama during the Bush (sr) administration. Carter’s presidency would be marred by the Iran Hostage Crisis (round the clock news), and school boys circulated paper targets with dart boards with the face of Ayatollah Khomeini.
- 37 years ago I watched The Jeffersons (Season 6, Episode 23) dramatize the twin impulses of the black community toward Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X (which I recalled in college, when reading W.E.B. Dubois’s comment in The Souls of Black Folk about “twoness”) in a George Jefferson flashback on the MLK assassination.
- 33 and 34 years ago, I saw Western superpowers invade tiny islands – the US:Grenada and Britain:the Falklands. I wondered about David and Goliath then.
- 28 years ago, we all saw (unless we’re Millennials or younger) the streets of Germany filled with people and the wall come down. The Scorpions sang “I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change”. I remember we held hands in hope, the Left and the Right–we were still, I assure you, one people.
- 25 years ago, I went ‘online’ and quit bothering to own a television. And that’s the last thing I remember from the era before. Somehow it was over. Welcome to AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, and behold the internet!
- One year ago, then, or perhaps two, we stopped being able to agree on the basics of what is real or whether reality has value. And I wonder where our story went. I wonder if we can have our Archie Bunker and our Dick Cavett ever again.
At the risk of being repetitive, as I think back through these images, I can’t help but notice that we were co-spectators of a reality about which we differed, but which we all agreed was actually there to be differed about.
The impulse to abandon it licked at the edges of our roles as audience and co-narrators. People occasionally called for atrocious things in the name of one ideology or another; people forgot the human cost and humans in general, in their outrage. But the University of Texas tower shooting, in which a man shot his wife and mother (violence toward women, even then, being the canary in the coal mine of mass killings) and then opened fire upon a crowd, was an anomaly.
This is NOT a call for a return to broadcast TV, or for abandoning our personal devices or the internet. TV was a vehicle, but it’s not the point. The question is what communal narrative do we inhabit? Can we ever inhabit the same one again?
We Weren’t Just Tribes
We have arrived at a place beyond TV, and beyond the internet, where being together in the same story is now routinely repudiated on a tangible, visceral, and violent level. We no longer gather around a shared reality, differ somewhat about its meaning, and discuss and debate it in agreed forums. Instead we often supersede the discussion, each of us going ‘nuclear’ at the drop of a hat. We are much more like individual dictatorships inhabiting little islands than people operating with mutual regard in a mutually respected space.
I have no profound answer to this. But at times like this, I resort to my capacity to remember an easier time–a more cohesive one. Perhaps memory provides the strength to persevere in the now, as we persevered then. To me, it seems we lived less in a naive fairytale then (the opposite is often the charge laid against the past), and the fairytale is now–the notion that we can deem everything truly questionable and not self-destruct, or that it doesn’t matter if we self-destruct. Those are fairytales.
Companies as Memory Keepers
Business leaders are uniquely poised to recover the ingredients that once united us, by reminding us of all there was and remains to share. This is one reason MadPipe runs so many vintage ads and Norman-Rockwell-like retrospectives. When Coca Cola enshrined forever the red and white version of Santa Claus, it was, sure, an act of shameless branding, but also a reminder that companies are not just thought leaders but cultural commentators that can either participate in a divide or reassure us of our fundamental togetherness.
Beyond Politics to Mutual Dreams
As a business owner and a professional, am I permitted to talk about this? Well first, I don’t feel any of this is a political stance, nor controversial, though anyone can make anything controversial these days, for precisely the reasons I’ve outlined. But also, if not us, then who? If people who have no political axe to grind do not remember the good we have–the mutual capacity to live and dream together, and do not tell the story of it out loud, then it will be forgotten. And I think that would leave us drowning without a life preserver. My mind goes to Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s masterpiece tells us that stories and books “remind us what asses and fools we are” and “stitch the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
As a corporate narrativist, I can’t rely solely on the world of now to tell me how humans are persuaded to look together, share an idea, and agree to collaborate with each other. If it were only for now, I would have to conclude that increasingly impossible. It’s looking back, knowing what was possible then, and bringing that into the now, that empowers our stories. So yes, I dare to look, dispassionately, without taking sides, except to take our side–the side of us apes, at the end of our run perhaps, depending on your framework, or else still hopeful, but at least still capable of thinking, looking, and listening together.
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