The Narratives Around Us

This week I was on the lookout for compelling narratives out there in the zeitgeist and found two worth discussing, both focusing on automobile safety (or the lack thereof).

The anchor story on the front page of last Monday’s (Feb. 1, 2010) New York Times was headlined “Toyota’s Slow Awakening to a Deadly Problem.” The writer, Bill Vlasic, instead of using the standard inverted pyramid approach that involves summarizing the entire story in the first sentence, took a narrative approach designed to grab the reader’s attention. He started with the story of a Lexus that sped out of control near San Diego last August 28, quoted the 911 call from the car (“we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … hold on and pray”), and told us the tragic outcome: the car colliding with an SUV, bursting into flames, and all four occupants dead. This narrative then introduced a more measured account of driver complaints of unintended acceleration of Toyotas and the history of government investigations of the problem.

I think the Toyota safety story will play out over the next few months, and possibly years, as a fascinating case of conflicting narratives. Toyota’s narrative will be the standard crisis management narrative: we’re aware there is a problem and we’re fixing it as fast as we can, in short, we’re in control. The US Government’s narrative is a retrospective one. We knew there was a problem long ago, we brought it to the attention of the company and, because they appear to have been dilatory, we will not only put pressure on them to solve the problem now, but hold them accountable – through civil litigation – for past errors. The third narrative is that of the victims, or relatives of deceased victims of unintentionally accelerating Toyotas, who will be launching huge law suits. The government and victims’ narratives have the potential to be with us for a long time, no matter how much Toyota tries to change the story.

The second narrative was from the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a major teaching hospital in Toronto specializing in, among other things, emergency medicine. It appears as both a subway poster and 30 second commercial (the latter can be found on the banner at sunnybrook.ca). The narrative starts with a car crash, a flight to the hospital by helicopter, a team of 36 specialists having 36 minutes to “perform the impossible,” the victim in bed on a ventilator and then learning to walk with an artificial leg. The narrative ends by identifying Sunnybrook, its website, its slogan (innovation when it matters most), and its pitch for support.

In narrative terms, a lot was going on in those 30 seconds. It’s a clear instance of the heroic genre, in which a desperate situation is saved. In the classic case, the hero is an individual, but in this case it’s a team, an identification that presages the institutional identity that will be revealed at the end of the story. There are also some subtle messages about the nature of the hospital. In the second frame, the victim is airlifted, rather than brought by ambulance, implying that this is a major regional hospital, not just a local one. In the last frame, the victim is learning to walk with a prosthetic leg, implying that the hospital provides, not only acute care, but comprehensive care and rehabilitation.

The narrator is the omniscient voice behind the scenes. Where does the story fit on the scale running from historically accurate to purely invented? We don’t know if this is a true story and the victim in the story an actual patient or an actor. Or perhaps Sunnybrook’s communications department would tell us the story represents what happens there all the time. An alternative would have been to present the story as a first person narrative, explicitly labeled as a testimonial by a former patient. Would first person testimonial have been a better choice than reenactment (of some kind) with an omniscient narrator?

Finally, it was a good idea to get the audience’s attention by presenting a gripping life-and-death story first and only in the last five seconds revealing the sponsor and purpose of the story.

So here we have two examples of narrative around us, indeed so much a part of our consciousness that we likely take them for granted. But when we start to analyze the narratives we begin to understand why and how they were used, how they were shaped by their creator, and the role they play in communicating a message.

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