Hillary Clinton's Social Media Challenge

Political Archetypes and Media: Can Rulers Use Outlaws Tools?

Posted Apr 11, 2015

The Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 set new standards for social media.  With Hillary Clinton expected to announce her candidacy any minute, all eyes will be on her social media team to see if they have the chops to defeat the traditionally social-media-challenged Republicans.  Do Democrats have the edge for 2016?  It's not just about skill.  This question overlooks a significant advantage that Obama had in using social media.  Obama’s archetype—underdog, everyman, social disrupter—was a perfect fit for social media.  Hillary Clinton’s archetype may prevent another slam dunk for the Dems in the social sphere. 

Obama is the poster child for social media in politics, particularly when compared to the Romney Campaign.  As the first “social media president,” he was a savvy early entrant into the social media space in 2008, which gave him an enormous leg-up against Romney in 2012 even without Romney’s help.  Few politicians these days—and no successful ones—ignore the power of social technologies in reaching voters and mobilizing support and donations.

However politicians should take note.  We’re past the point of newness, surprise and early entrant advantage.  Political machines can hire smart people who know how to manage social platforms, big data crunchers who know how to harvest and track voters (and their friends) from network to network, social scientists to build psychographic models, and wordsmiths to craft messages that speak to the hearts of highly targeted segmentation.  But the end of the day, social media is a communication tool that has distinct properties compared to other platforms.  Social media is open, unpolished, quirky, emotional and responsive.  These qualities have to fit the story a politician wants to tell, or at least the persona he or she wants to sell.

Stories have structure.  They have linearity, causality, conflict and roles.  Our brains process stories easily because they condense the complexity of life into known archetypes, metaphors and patterns that allow them to transcend individual differences and lock onto values, emotions and experience.   The archetype a politician presents triggers expectations about who they are and how they’ll behave—Obama was an Underdog, Reagan was an Everyman, Teddy Roosevelt was an Outlaw, McCain was a Warrior, John Kerry tried unsuccessfully tried to pass himself off as a Warrior but was more the Scholar. Bill Clinton was an Everyman, George Bush Sr. a Statesman, George W. Bush was lucky because Al Gore was a Politician, which, ironically, is not a good archetype for a politician.   Hillary Clinton?  I’ve seen her referred to as the wise woman but, in this potential election of political dynasties (how un-American is that?), she comes across more as the Ruler archetype.

Archetype matters for social media success.  It isn’t just about honesty and integrity, although that would be nice basis for an election for a change.  It’s about the fit between the politician’s archetype, the message and the medium of choice.  Some will support a message, others will contradict.  As Henry Jenkins (2007) noted for transmedia storytelling, each medium should be used for what it does best, integrating what we learned from Marshall McLuhan (2003), that the medium is part of the message, not just a vehicle for it. 

In the case of politicians, brands and causes, the coherence and consistency of the message is dependent on its mode of transportation.  That’s why a couple of the big no-no’s in social media is ‘do not sell’ and ‘do not just talk about yourself.’  Social media is relational.  Underdogs and Everyman are expected to talk to everyone.  Rulers and Sages are not. 

Lots of things beyond the vehicle frame messages, priming our brains to influence interpretation.  Cognitive psychologists, conflict resolution experts and smart marketers know that the interpretation of any piece of information can be entirely changed by a host of things we can control and still more that we can’t.  

Social media, however, is a big one.  Social media is an Outlaw. It was a game changer, a paradigm shifter, a business model disrupter and all those other adjectives and metaphors we all use trying to describe the extraordinary changes that accompanied the ability to connect peer-to-peer and manipulate information and content, 24/7, independent of time or space, most of the time for free.  Even the expressions of joy and silliness or other unmentionables on YouTube, Instagram and Vine are mold-breakers.   Social media is an enabler of the Underdog, the Everyman, the Outlaw and the creator of Heroes.  It is the antithesis of stability and control, the Ruler and the Sage.

A tweet comes with expectations.  I provides a cognitive anchor about the type of content. We expect it to be current and unproduced.  Raw and timely. Content that doesn’t fit is either dismissed or, as many a politician has unhappily discovered, ‘repurposed’ to illuminate the misstep.  The platform triggers existing metaphors and filters as successfully as Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” commercial did in the 1964 presidential election against Goldwater.  Nothing says ‘warmonger’ like the image of an innocent young girl plucking daisies next to a a nuclear bomb blast.  Similarly, nothing says ‘phony’ like a calculated tweet two days after the disclosure of deleted email and the ‘privacy privilege’ or, on the other side of the aisle, hiring a social media manager without reading their personal Twitter feed. Even unrelated images influence how people interpret messages, which is why people stick pictures of puppies and smiling children into campaign documents at the drop of a hat  Pinterest versus Facebook, Merkat versus Instagram, CNN versus Fox.  As McLuhan warned, the container provides meaning of its own.  

For Obama, as the classic underdog on a hero’s journey, social media wasn’t his communications vehicle, it was part of his story.  But now what?  We’re stuck in some kind of perverse, anti-everyman situation with dynasties to the left and right.  So when people ask if Hillary Clinton will have an advantage with social media because Obama did or if the Republicans can get it right because Romney didn't, those are the wrong questions.  It isn’t about party.  It’s about archetype.  Why do potential candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have troubled getting authentic traction on social media?  Why do they look silly where Obama looked human?  It’s more than just a charisma thing.  It’s because it’s hard to shirk your archetypal image (in the case of Bush and Clinton emphasized by their dynastic ties.)  If you’re a Ruler archetype, it sounds funny to talk with an underdog’s tools.  Check out Ted Cruz.  Another underdog who mobilized his social networks to generate a couple of million in campaign donations in two days.  It’s not the politics, it’s the archetype that fits.

Archetypes are the innate psychological structures that form the patterns of human experience, even across cultures (e.g., Jung, 1972).  We all form these motifs.  The details vary but the patterns remain the same.  If this ends up being an election with the dynastic duo Hillary Clinton against Jeb Bush, beyond the traditional challenges of running for President, they will both have to figure out how to use social media in a way that works for them, rather than against them.


Jenkins, H. (2007, March 22). Transmedia Storytelling 101.  Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. Retrieved from http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Jung, C. G. (1972). Mandala Symbolism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In T. Gordon (Ed.). Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press. (Original work published 1964).