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“Love the Refugees” : Why the Token Representative in Business and Culture works – a Market and Consumer Behavior Perspective

This post is about the power of the ‘token representative’. The image of the refugee of today, is replacing that of the mobster of yesterday. It is always easier (and more emotionally satisfying) to use ‘approximate thinking’ and remember a simplified story. Interestingly, this is flowing from cultural products like Film to other areas, including business and entrepreneurship…

The Token Representative in Successful Cultural Products

Films have always been accused of (over) using stereotypes. The jokes on the image of Arabs, Russians, Muslims, Chinese, and – to a lesser degree – Germans, in films are everywhere.

I saw the movie “reel bad arabs” a while back, and it is relevant to this topic (although some might argue, unnecessary).

The token representative is a character ‘stands for’ his/her group of people. The key feature about them is something we attribute to the group. This can be less negative than the stereotype, but the fact remains that it is not the character’s individuality and humanness that makes them stand out, but rather their group’s plight… But why is the token representative so central to making films?

Well, Using token representatives makes market sense:

  • It allows film makers to ‘narrate more’ by relying on the audience’s existing beliefs. “I don’t need to retell the story. You know the story.”
  • It relies on familiarity to ‘keep things simple’ (and who hates simple?).
  • It makes the audience feel better when they ‘know’ something they’re seeing and can predict what’s happening.

Stereotypes are cultural resources that help people make sense of the world. We normally use these to build deeper and more diverse understanding (ideally) of new things we encounter.

These are some of the basic characteristics of familiarity, and stereotyping (in the most negative sense) is becoming less abundant now, but…

I think we’re doing a reversal, only in the same direction (!!! I know !!!).

Think about this: which movies are selected to represent specific countries in international film festivals? which books are shortlisted for literary awards? why is that?

Not another refugee movie/song/dance/novel

Positive stereotypes intended to encourage compassion are the modern ‘guy with a weird accent hijacking a plane’.

This is what I mean by reversal in the same direction.

How many refugee movies have won international awards lately? One might argue that this has become the easier path to international awards by creators from a certain set of countries.

The market (audience) for culture wants simplification and familiarity.

The market/gate keepers (film critics and award-giving authorities) for awards wants to feel good and to satisfy the market (audience).

>>> SO, let’s make another refugee movie (…)!

That’s the easy path.

A token representative is more capable of evoking an emotional reaction, positive or negative. This automatically leads to the story gaining more attention and memorability.

I’ve seen a similar thing in literature. Is literature supposed to be universal or local? An argument I liked once said that literature is supposed to be universal by reflecting on individual experiences. But look at the booker prize shortlists (or others), and how the pull towards the details of the cliched experience is strangling the creativity by requirements of boring long passages trying to weave everything around the familiar (war, refugees, poverty, oppression,…). I expected much more from “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao”.

A case in point has been the Lebanese dancing group “Mayyas” winning “America’s Got Talent”, in what later became a display of false nationalism and patriotism… The team did generate some nice and creative scenes, and I don’t want to talk about appropriation… but isn’t this related to the same refugee theme, albeit through the even more cliched ‘woman of the orient’ image? Did they win because they are a token representative of sorts?

Mayyas : A “Lebanese” band in “America’s Got Talent”

Guan Yin Thousand Hands Dance

The Token Representative in Business & Innovation / Entrepreneurship

Things become even more interesting. Token entrepreneurs !!!

Entrepreneurship relies on stories, and Innovations need stories and cultural links to spread and be adopted (See my research into Cultural Resources and Innovation here).

Corollary: Let’s add the refugee story there !

I’ve seen many entrepreneurs from the Middle East or Africa add their country’s misfortunes to their success story. An entrepreneur came from the war torn country to the paradise of opportunity. A woman fought against tradition and against society’s insistence she doesn’t learn. An immigrant struggled to leave the infinite poverty (rags) back home and to challenge a multi-generational destiny and arrive here!

Wouldn’t you give money to this hero??

I mean other than serial geniuses like SBF and Neumann , the middle-east-escaping , tradition-challenging, poverty-decimating, war-defeating hero deserves your investment! (somebody should do research on the effect of refugee stories on funding with a control being ultimate success).

This is also related to the extreme Economic Centralization and macroeconomic forces. Guys like Adam Neumann and SBF can play with billions of dollars, even with questionable levels of intelligence because of the abundance of capital and its misallocation(partly). This should be clear by now. Giving funds to the colored, the underprivileged, and the refugees of the world can be a great guilt-reliever for players in the system.

Fuzziness, Creativity, and Identities

So how much does one learn about some (other , random , distant) group of people? The answer depends… but typically, and unless there is a good reason: “not much”.

We need to have a simple and actionable image of the world, and stereotypes help with that.

Our image of the world also shapes our identity, and we are (very) reluctant to accept things that might shatter that. New stories need to fit within the listener’s image of the world, as they approximate groups of people to fit into neat boxes.

That’s why story-tellers try to keep them simple. This can put limits on creativity, but different story-tellers have different objectives. The by-product of this, interestingly, is a perpetuation of the token representative image, until a backlash against it erupts somewhere. This means that the fact that a token representative is popular actually makes it more popular, in a positive accelerating loop.

Is this good? Creative? Useful?

These are questions in another discussion.

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