The Super Hero Myth

Marlboro man

We like to believe that one person can save the world, win a project, and deliver the lights out performance that will change everything. No culture believes in super heroes quite like America does, and that includes our marketing.

Just consider the strong man image of the Marlboro Man. Heck, even the Old Spice guy is a play off this dream of one super hero.

The post-mortem deification of Steve Jobs over the past 10 days can be considered in this light. We know more than one person created all of these Apple products, software, marketing, store and web materials.

When it comes to creative we see the same phenomena. David Ogilvy is considered a God amongst advertisers. Many people in his agency (while he was alive) adhered to his methodologies. They also exercised their own creative license in writing and designing legendary ads.

Online, we see the same thing with bloggers. We idealize them as great voices and sages. Yet, many don’t have public accomplishments. Or when they do, we fail to see the critical role players that help make them a success.

Really this super hero/pedestal concept applies to all aspects of our culture.

Consider last Friday’s Give to the Max Day training event, which by almost every single account was a smashing success. Some people have offered props to me as the general manager for Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, and organizer and point person on the training conference. The reality is much different, considering all of the critical players who executed almost perfectly:

  • AARP’s Tammy Gordon and Beth Carpenter lent us their facility, including its fantastic live streaming and wifi capabilities. They also supported directly not he AARP Facebook page and the Create the Good Twitter handle.
  • Razoo’s community manager Ifdy Perez did a fantastic job on Twitter, and also cultivating blogger attendance.
  • Razoo’s Shai Chu handled all of the logistics for the event, and it came off seamlessly.
  • The nonprofit attendees and their excitement to learn and participate was critical to making the day productive
  • The speakers — including Beth Kanter, GiveMn.org‘s Dana Nelson, Razoo’s Justin Wredberg, NWF’s Danielle Brigida, Care2’s Clinton O’Brien, Atlas Corps’s Abby Flottemesch, and ACTion Alexandria’s Tracy Viselli — all did a bang up job.
  • Two speakers — Katya Andresen and Jocelyn Harmon — came from Network for Good, which is the underlying backbone behind Causes and Crowdrise, two Razoo competitors. They came in a spirit of industry cooperation and in support of our mutual hometown’s nonprofit community. Special hat tip to Network for Good.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk took time to provide a video to attending nonprofits
  • The Razoo Foundation underwrote the whole thing. Give to the Max Day parters United Way of the National Capital Area and the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region promoted the event.
  • Last May then interim Razoo CEO, now CTO Brian Fujito had the idea for Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, without which none of this would be occurring.
  • Many Razoo executives and staffers touched this event, including Lesley Mansford, Alison Risso, Bo Lotinsky, Claire Moore, Matt Camp, Heather Pringle, Jacques Villareal, Bryce Melvin, and on and on.
  • Beth Kanter deserves a second credit, simply for teaching me how important capacity development is to nonprofits, who can have all the tools in the world, and could not execute, simply for not having the resources, training and talent to succeed. This training event, in fact the whole design of Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, is infused with this knowledge.

You can see that many, many people came together to form the recipe of success for Friday’s training event (please excuse any forgotten mentions). That’s the truth behind most successes. One person rarely is the sole generator of great efforts.

What About Those Super Powers?

My favorite super hero is Batman. He is always able to succeed with determination and skills in the face of his own tragic flaws. He does so with the help of friends, and no true super powers. Sheer moxy (or craziness), help from others, technology and training power Batman to success.

We all wish we had super powers. We wish we could change the world by flying through the air and laser eye vision or the like. That’s why we admire the super acts of individuals, placing them on pedestals.

All of us excel in certain areas. While all humans are equal in rights and random chance, we are not all equal in skills. Some of us are very talented in areas. However, invariably these skills are certainly offset by character flaws.

This is not to say that the strengths aren’t noteworthy. They are. Albert Einstein was brilliantly thoughtful and analytical. It doesn’t mean you’d want to hang out with him at a baseball game. Such are weaknesses. Understanding one’s strengths AND weaknesses, and how others round out a total effort is the art of management.

All stars have weaknesses. And even if they claim not to, one person eventually hits a limit to scaling. That’s why we need others: To counter weaknesses and collectively achieve what one person alone cannot.

The Myth Lives On

Barack obama yes we can

“In life, there are teams called Smith, and teams called ‘Grabowski’….We’re Grabowskis!” Mike Ditka

Great quote for a team with no ultimate star, the 1985 Chicago Bears. Yet, we don’t love Grabowskis. We love super men (and women), icons who can supposedly change the world.

The hope that we, too, could be super one day touches an inner desire to be special. That’s why pedestals are built, and marketing images contrived. Because deep down inside we want to believe that we can conquer all.

So we celebrate those that appear to do so, in all aspects of our culture.

Yet, in reality, we know that it was many, it was the whole group that did it together. Even the stars need their Grabowskis to succeed. Just don’t shout it out too loud.

What do you think of the American super hero myth?

Can a Villain Become an Antihero?

Denver Skyline

In a great ongoing conversation with Amy Sample Ward about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and whether companies can authentically engage, we discussed whether they can simply create marketing fanfare or tell a genuine story. Authenticity must be something that truly reflects a culture, not some mechanized program designed to bluff stakeholders. This is particularly true of companies who have been publicly decried for great wrongs. It’s not easy to turn a villain into an antihero.

Not all companies are villains. But the point can be seen the same way. Trust in corporations hit an all time low last year. No one believes that companies — particularly public ones — wants to do more than turn a higher profit for their quarterly earnings statements. The resulting tensions with corporations’ burned communities — employees and customers alike — has resulted in the recent cause marketing turn to revamp and boost tarnished images (See David Conner’s 2nd CSR Internet Revolution post).

Makes sense to me. But to do so branding oneself as an angel doesn’t seem like an authentic path. If one considers the archetypal antihero, they are flawed, and lacking some of the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit… But we love them anyway. Perhaps the best post I’ve read on the archetype is Jocelyn Harmon’s Dirty Harry story.

Perhaps a great example of flawed fanfare can be seen with Pepsi’s Refresh efforts. Surely $20 million in a free-for-all contest would impress many, but contest flaws have marred the efforts. Without a rudder or stated Theory of Change, the campaign seems to be marred.

As Zoetica CEO Beth Kanter said in a post last night, “This strategy is more appropriate for selling products, not social change. Let me say this. If brands want to be authentic in their social media for social good effort, they need a fusion approach that balances marketing with social change.”

Now authenticity isn’t showing flair or a rock song or even dropping $20 million. It’s about demonstrating a little heart and passion, even flaws. Be real, and that’s the problem with many corporate social responsibility programs. They lack a frank pragmatism about business and its internetworked ties to the community. To build trust, people need to believe you’re authentic. Thus over-glossed CSR programs without substantive cultural acknowledgment — even flaws — fail to compel people.

There’s no greater example of flawed CSR — of a villain bound to stay a villain — then WalMart’s current efforts (see Joe Waters: Ten Reasons Why CSR Programs Fail). As I discussed on Wednesday, the primary thrust of WalMart’s CSR effort is its green initiatives.

The big issue with WalMart isn’t the green contributions, which are substantive, albeit new. These are great and in the end are smart for the community… and the bottom line. The problem lies in its continued labor practices, it’s detrimental impact on local economies, and it’s terrible healthcare programs. When you read WalMart’s CSR page, you get no insight that the companyhas these flaws or is even trying to address them.

I wouldn’t like it if WalMart said we hire cheap to keep prices down, but I would respect it. Just like Dirty Harry may be abrasive, but does the right thing (sort of, in a very violent way). I would respect them even more if they invested in creating a more vibrant local economy and universal healthcare initiatives (WalMart does have healthcare initiatives, they just don’t directly address their own employees, just their customers).

Instead I get this, “We’re proud to be a “store of the community” for all of the communities we serve.” Still selling, still promoting. All of the local charity and foundation work does not really address WalMart or its problems. Thus for many, in spite of the fanfare, Walmart remains a villain.

Everyone understands business is business, but if you want CSR to work, a company needs to acknowledge its own place in the world, and its positive and negative impact in the ecosphere. An amends cannot be received if there’s no acknowledgment of wrong. Instead of selling and posturing all the time, simply try to be a part of and contribute, too. Show us who you (a.k.a. the employees and culture) really are.

Details on the NonProfit 2.0 Conference

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Updated November 9, 2009

It’s with great pleasure that I am joining Allyson Kapin and Shireen Mitchell in organizing the first ever NonProfit 2.0 Unconference.  The Friday, February 12 event will be held somewhere in Washington, DC. What better way to kick off Valentine’s Day Weekend then with some love for our society and the people trying to improve it.

The event has already attracted some high caliber talent. Twestival Founder Amanda Rose has agreed to be one of the two keynotes. Damien Basile and Jocelyn Harmon have already committed to attending and pitching unsessions.

The Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference (on Twitter at nonprofit20) will be DC’s only unconference dedicated to the social cause space. Why? Because this sector is special and unique. Using social media to create networked communities and movements is much different than selling products or services.

From volunteers and political action to cultivating donors and partners, social media for causes represents a mission. Often our communications impact society, benefiting Americans and citizens across the globe. Changing society for the better is a special, unique heart-felt activity. Join others like you for this very special unconference committed to doing social good.

The format will meld the best of the BlogPotomac speaker and true Camp Unconference formats. Specifically, NonProfit 2.0 delivers the best of both worlds, offering great keynote sessions, but in an unconference way with no PowerPoint, 15 minute leads, and open questions and dialogue for fantastic conversations. Then from midmorning forward, NonProfit 2.0 shifts into a full-on Unconference.

We are definitely looking for sponsors, too. Sponsorships range from $100 for individuals to $1000 for Rose sponsors. Details are here.

Register today and feel the love!