Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why Is Corruption So Boring? (Part 1)

In 2010, a group of talented young musicians from across the globe gathered in Nairobi, with the financial support of Transparency International and Jeunesses Musicales International. Their mission: to write and record a viral hit that would not only communicate the gravity of corruption to young people (a crucial demographic for anticorruption activists), but would also make them want to share the tune with their friends. The diverse band of artists left the studio with “Against Corruption,” a reggae jam complete with Lebanese Arabic hip-hop verses and flamenco-tinged guitar riffs. You can watch the music video here, or listen to the audio here.

Despite its all-star cast and catchy hook, however, the big budget music video has been viewed just over 600 times. This kind of failure to turn big anticorruption dollars into effective campaigns that generate excitement, activism, and action on the ground isn’t unique. The anticorruption community’s proposed revolution may well be broadcast, but its soundtrack will be probably be, dare I say, boring. And as a result, few will tune in.

Why is that? What makes it so much easier to capture an audience’s imagination when speaking about issues like the refugee crisis or modern-day slavery than to tell the story of corruption, whose effects are similarly destructive?

To answer that question, it’s instructive to turn to an individual much-maligned (and deservedly so) in the pages of the Global Anticorruption Blog: U.S. President Donald J. Trump. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump displayed mastery of story. Story, as defined by marketing guru Jonah Sachs, is:

a particular type of communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview. The storyteller does this by placing characters, real or fictional, onto a stage and showing what happens to these characters over a period of time. Each character pursues some type of goal in accordance with his or her values, facing difficulty along the way and either succeeds or fails according to the storyteller’s view of how the world works.

Trump’s campaign centered around a simple narrative: Evil external forces are weakening the nation, and the ‘elites’ are too blinded by greed to stop them; together we can “make America great again.” Trump’s message contained all of the crucial elements of story: a hero (Trump and his audience), a villain (malevolent external forces aided by oblivious elites), and a conflict (us vs. them). And he infused that quest with concrete, specific, and memorable (albeit absurd) goals: build a wall, lock her up, ban all Muslims, drain the swamp, and do better deals. Democratic strategist James Carville summed it up well: “They produce a narrative. We produce a litany.”

So what does President Trump’s successful campaign have to do with making anticorruption efforts more accessible to people who aren’t already involved? Trump’s campaign teaches us the importance of story to capturing hearts and minds. That means crafting a quest on which anticorruption leaders can call would-be activists, complete with a hero, villain(s), conflict, and a “moral of the story” that provides the hero with a sense of purpose and motivation.

Below, I identify a few challenges unique to telling the story of corruption, and propose solutions.

  1. CHALLENGE: Corruption’s victims are diffuse and their injuries are hard to quantify, yet good stories often have a sympathetic protagonist who embarks on a challenging quest. The most compelling stories are told about individuals. Every good story has a protagonist, and successful campaigns for social change are no exception. But identifying the victims of corruption is difficult precisely because there are so many of them—the set of victims is often coextensive with the entire population of an affected society. Compounding the problem, corruption’s toll is sometimes no greater on one individual than on another, and the relationship between the corrupt act and the injuries suffered by its victims can be quite attenuated.
  • SOLUTION: Numerous studies show that humans are far more prone to empathize with the suffering of an individual than with that of a group. So, in developing a message, anticorruption advocates should identify an individual who has acutely felt the effects of corruption, and focus on the negative consequences for that individual. Statistics alone won’t do the trick. To capture hearts and minds, anecdotal evidence goes much farther. In addition, while the victims of corruption may be diffuse, every member of the target audience—the potential activists—can be made to feel like a potential hero. Indeed, anticorruption advocates should make sure that they tell a story that summons those in the audience (rather than the advocates delivering the message) to be heroes by doing their part to address the consequences of corruption for the individual.
  1. CHALLENGE: Corruption’s victims are sometimes also its perpetrators, yet good stories have an antagonist. Just as the fight against corruption often has no victim-protagonist, the results of efforts to identify a perpetrator-antagonist are either frustratingly vague or lead us uncomfortably close to home. Corrupt systems frequently enlist the participation of otherwise honest individuals. Inspiring action against a corrupt system is challenging when the heroes-to-be are themselves implicated.
  • SOLUTION: Today there is no shortage of corrupt and conflicted officials to play the role of the villain-antagonist. Anticorruption advocates can focus on a particularly corrupt individual, or can create a pastiche of the typically corrupt individuals in the society, imbuing them with all the characteristics their audience has been conditioned to revile. To the extent that the audience may be complicit, consider employing the concept of redemption, a common storytelling trope.
  1. CHALLENGE: Corruption is hard to define, yet good stories are specific. The definition of “corruption” is maddeningly difficult to pin down. Indeed, the term is applied so broadly that for many, “corruption” is little more than a synonym for “badness.” Our inability to limit the scope of the term makes it almost impossible to evoke strong emotion in our audience. “Against Corruption” is a case-in-point: Despite its catchy refrain, “together against [badness]” is just too vague and hokey to evoke the kind of strong sentiment that makes a viewer click “share.”
  • SOLUTION: Advocates seeking to mobilize their audiences with anticorruption storytelling should clearly identify what corruption means in their particular context, and concretely depict the consequences of corruption for the audience. Furthermore, advocates should avoid attempts to universalize the problem of corruption and should instead seek to create campaigns that are as regionally-specific as possible. The level of generality required to speak of a universal problem often undermines the kind of specificity required to tell a compelling story and to create heroes to whom an audience can relate.

In a follow-up post, I will look at recent anticorruption advocacy campaigns (successful and otherwise) and assess how they score on the above criteria.

2 thoughts on “Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why Is Corruption So Boring? (Part 1)

  1. Why is Corruption So Boring?

    A different story: In India, the rural peoples are using a proverb ‘Human Can betray you, but the plant-medicine can’t’. Plant is something of nature that is not manipulated by human.
    ‘Corruption’ is a created subject from economy regulated modern civilization. Anti-corruption movement or research is to eliminate this corruption from the society or civilization, that is only a development of ‘corruption’ as a whole. It is the very basic word of civilization from the view point of Science.
    Still, we are hunting “Corruption is hard to define”. The science is much helpless to define according to our choiceable ‘Definition’ of corruption.
    In civilization, we are encircled us with some rules and regulation to hide the origin of corruption. Or, we purposefully created an environment around research that the origin never been uttered, but ‘try’ will continue for unlimited period. Is it a play ground of “Corruption’s victims are sometimes also its perpetrators, yet good stories have an antagonist.”? Corruption is clear in open eye, but can’t say, as there is a rule -not to touch it without so-called prof, which is motivated wiped out or untouched.
    Last: ‘We’, the humans are doing ‘Corruption’ consciously, and ‘We’ are doing research on ‘Corruption’ for professional earnings. The Plant never betray us , But we do.

  2. Pingback: How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire – Legal Note to Self

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