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Stereotypes and the Shadow of The Provocateur

Continuing with the theme of the American Dream from last week, I thought that this third post in the series was going to be about the shadow of the Provocateur archetype.

I thought I had the perfect example in this spot created by 72 and Sunny in 2015, featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Samantha Hoopes as part of Carl’s Jr. campaign designed to appeal to “young, hungry guys”:

Upon deeper reflection, it was obvious that while this spot activates the archetypal energy of The Provocateur, the narrative is actually a compilation of stereotypes of what it means to be American. Using the hashtag #most American, the ad goes full chauvinist and is blatant, and some might say lazy, demographic bait that absconds with a profound concept — patriotism.

The shadow is a pull toward the dark side. In this case it’s an appeal to power, a manipulation for selfish reasons. Using boorish tactics, the shadow of The Provocateur justifies stirring up a deep psychological aspect of identity – American culture – with bold-faced stereotypes designed to trigger an adrenaline/cortisol addiction. It’s kind of like inciting a riot. The shadow of the Provocateur doesn’t care if anything productive results from the riot, but rather is fueled by the hormonal rush of cheering on a kind of pack mentality. And from a brand perspective this is memorable, aka effective. How can young, hungry guys forget the images of boobs and burgers? Hell yeah! Using these stereotypes is a tactic. And it is working. “According to CEO Andrew Puzder, sales are going up and the company is only one of two (along with McDonald's) to increase unit volume in the U.S. in 2014.”

While activating archetypes in branding is creative and fun and energizing, it is no laughing matter. Anyone who uses archetypes is, wittingly or unwittingly, creating and shaping our culture, and so we have a responsibility to be accountable for the contributions we make. Stories that embed stereotypes, like this example from Carl’s Jr., contribute to defining American culture and the “American brand,” and they influence the national and international discourse. In a way, stories like these glorify some of the most shadow-like qualities within our selves. They offer a tacit permission to unleash our shadows onto others.

This discussion now becomes one of ethics. I’m not going to argue whose ethics are right because it’s not about an absolute right and wrong. It’s about what aligns with your personal code of ethics so you can look yourself in the mirror every day and be proud. Some call this integrity. Personally, I subscribe to the precautionary principle: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The questions I ask myself during any decision process are “Am I aware of what biases are contributing to my decision?” and “Am I accountable for the possible externalities created by my choices?”

Stereotypes are not archetypes. While stereotypes, like archetypes, are a kind of heuristic or short-cut to meaning, they are very different. In Archetypes in Branding, I offered this differentiation between archetypes and stereotypes:

"Archetypes lack the dehumanizing factors of stereotypes, representing instead a full spectrum of characteristics that can manifest both positively and negatively. Stereotypes limit choice while archetypes empower choice…. Stereotypes break down understanding, yet their allure can be addictive…. They are those speedy, generalized judgments that trivialize the richness of our diversity and demean the individual. Where stereotypes are like cartoons that offer a simplistic experience, archetypes are more like poems that add depth and richness to experience." (pp. 10-11)

A quick litmus test to distinguish between stereotypes and archetypes is to check your gut as to whether a narrative feels reductionist and limiting or whether it feels expansive and open.

If we are conscious to stereotypes rather than seduced by them as salves to avoid or off-gas our emotional discomfort and fears, they become an opportunity for learning as well. When faced with a stereotype, there is an unexpressed bias beneath it. Not sure what biases you have? Start here with my favorite Wikipedia entry that is a long list of cognitive biases.

Stay curious!

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