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Archetypal Shadows of the American Dream

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

My last post was an introduction to the conversation that archetypal shadows can be valuable tools for endogenous growth and learning. Now we dive into the shadows of specific archetypes citing examples to ground the discussion.

For the purposes of this conversation, I'd like to ask that we agree:

  1. that the archetypal approach to storytelling, and by extension to branding, “works” because archetypes are a consistent, enduring and agile expression of meaning that embodies the values of the brand promise.

  2. that with this great power, comes great responsibility.

  3. that archetypes are essentially a heuristic, or shortcut, that can unwittingly reveal and/or affirm unhelpful cognitive biases.

Key to American culture is a concept known as “the American Dream.” First introduced in 1931 by historian Truslow Adams, the original meme was founded on prosperity, freedom and democracy. But Adams clarified these terms by saying,

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.”

This post about the value of the archetypal shadow plays out within the concept of the American Dream, what Clotaire Rapaille calls a culture code. What are the archetypal narratives running within this culture code and are we aware of the role of the shadow in changing its very nature?

Sidebar: For more on the American Dream, here's a great article by Martha Bayles in the Atlantic that goes into its background and how the rest of the world perceives it.

So, as an American who has lived and worked abroad, perhaps I’m hypersensitive to the reputation of being an ignorant and loud American. This reputation is, of course, a stereotype.

But what are the U.S.’s underlying archetypes? While trying to not get political here, my own experience of America’s macro-environment is manifesting in the shadows of The Explorer, The Visionary and The Guardian.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from way back in 2014. Did you see or do you remember this ad from Cadillac produced for the Winter Olympics called “Poolside” or “N’est pas?”

Created by advertising agency Rogue, an IPG subsidiary, the ad was presumably intended as an unapologetic provocation of American values. It grabs our attention because it activates the shadow of the underlying archetypes of The Guardian, The Visionary and The Explorer.

The shadow of the Explorer is brought to life in the celebration of self-indulgence and entitlement. The shadow of the Visionary is played out as classist greed. And the shadow of the Guardian manifests as an overbearing hubris of a “me first” mentality and the abuse of power. Underneath the clever snark, the ad feeds on the shared human fear of being disempowered, and presents a way to combat that feeling.

The fact that it aired during the Olympics makes this especially unsettling for people who do not share this shadow-based archetypal story of what it means to be an American. In my opinion, and I know I’m not alone, it falls into the realm of chest beating and aggrandizing a so-called American dream that in my frame of reference is really more of a nightmare.

So what is the value of the shadows played out in this example? Perhaps it was the pseudo-aspirational quality of unapologetic narcissism, or maybe the visceral clarity of a really quite masterful use of humor, but the backlash was so great that in March 2014 (a month later), Team Detroit spoofed Cadillac’s ad with this ad for Ford called, “Upside: Anything is possible.”

It features Pashon Murray, founder of Detroit Dirt, a non-profit compost company working to turn forgotten parcels of land in Detroit into urban farms that not only feed, but revitalize the community.


Appearing in many guises and in many contexts, the shadow triggers universal fears. I would assert that in "Poolside" the fears of alienation, not good enough (in the form of overcompensation) and scarcity are activated. The shadow has a polarizing impact that either entrenches an unconscious belief system based on the underlying fears of these shadows or shines a light to empower an inquiry into their alignment, or misalignment, with our values. With as detached a lens as possible, the value in unpacking these particular shadows lies in the inquiry to hone our inner navigation rather than unwittingly entrench existing biases. The value is in the reflection about the questions the shadow provokes.

  • How much of what is presented as snarky humor is actually representative of my own beliefs?

  • What feelings did it trigger?

  • Am I part of ‘the problem’ or ‘part of the solution?’

The shadows serve as a reminder to go within ourselves to address core issues and examine our biases and beliefs. Of course this requires an open mind, the will to grow, a dose of compassion – rather than judgment – and perhaps most important of all, curiosity. It's not a question of positive or negative. Remember, as Jung said, "the brighter the light, the darker the shadow." And vice versa.

If you’re working in business, the arts or sciences, wittingly or unwittingly, you are creating our global society’s culture. That's a pretty awesome responsibility, and opportunity. How do you want your epitaph to read?

Stay curious!

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