Lessons from Lost's Dharma Initiative: How to Start an Evil Corporate Empire
in Branding | by Ethan Lyon
Imagine being sequestered, confined to a small space and told to painstakingly push a button over and over again, indefinitely. Wait, are we talking about ABC’s hit show Lost or the hilarious late 90s corporate satire, Office Space?
Surprisingly, not many critics have drawn the parallel between Lost’s Dharma Initiative and the “evil corporate empire.” The writers of Lost illustrate the evils of the Dharma Initiative (manipulation, greed, even genocide) to reflect the “evil” of corporations (layoffs, the bottom line, manipulation, greed).
Lost’s Dharma Initiative taps into the very real battle between the greedy, Wall Street corporations and Main Street America. The correlation could be the red thread that has made Lost such a run-away success (in addition to those painful cliff-hangers).
Since the announcement of the recession in 2007 (sparking the clash between Wall Street and Main Street), Lost has maintained between 9-13 million nightly viewers and as high as 16 million (not adjusted for DVR). In May 2009, Lost had the most online views of any network, with 36.4 million views at ABC.com according to Nielsen VideoCensus. Such cultural commentary is a pervasive trend in Hollywood.
Movies and TV shows are often loaded with underlying messages and political and societal commentary:
- Avatar, the $2 billion, number one box office hit of all time, is about saving the environment
- The Simpsons, the longest-running cartoon, in its 21st season, explores the deterioration of the ideal American Leave it to Beaver family
- The Office, popularized in the UK and a US smash hit, is about corporate incompetence
- Beavis and Butthead (remember the controversial: Fire! Fire!?) is about disenfranchised, “lost” Gen Xers.
How have Lost writers built the nefarious corporate image with the Dharma Initiative? Let’s find out so you too can create your own corporate empire:
- Create a Masterbrand
- A masterbrand is the overarching brand of one or more sub-brands.
- Corporate culture thrives on long acronyms, such as CEO, CMO, CFO… Lost too has a ridiculously long acronym: Dharma Initiative (Department of Heuristics and Research on Material Applications)
- Create a unifying symbol that defines your mission. Dharma has the octagon web with a center that can be replaced with sub-brands (i.e. research stations), such as The Arrow or The Swan.
- Once you have the symbol, brand everything you have with it — like pharma swag. Every product on the Lost island — from canned peas to jump-suits — is tagged with the ubiquitous Dharma logo.
- Develop a Bureaucratic Structure
- Corporations are infamous for their bureaucratic structure (the paperwork to go to the bathroom is three feet high!).
- All key decisions must be made by a committee. Office Space had “the Bobs,” and all important decisions are run through the Dharma Initiative committee, including department heads (think Head of Research Stuart Radzinsky and Head of Security, “LaFleur”).
- Make sure you create lot of paperwork as to confuse an outsider. Office Space has TPS reports, Dharma has the monitoring station with endless reems of notebooks. Enron had over 4,000 pages of jargon-riddled, impenetrable financial documents.
- Separate employees so they can’t rebel. In Office Space, it’s cubicles, for Dharma it’s deep, sealed-off bunkers (where you have to painstakingly push a button every 108 minutes!).
- Develop a Unified Internal Brand
- Developing a unified internal brand translates into a loyal following. Enron created such a powerful internal (and external) brand that the leadership tricked everyone into following the scam.
- Hail to the almighty “Orientation” video (see above). Try to control perception with “brand propaganda,” such as orientation videos.
- Reward followers such as John Lock — who buy-in and believe everything — while squashing nay-sayers like Jack.
- Always Meet the Bottom line
- At the end of the day, it’s about financial survival, or the bottom line.
- Remember from your “crafting perception videos,” everything is for the health of the company. Some will even blow themselves up to save the company (think Juliet, last season, last episode). If we look at Enron, the leadership and employees lied, cheated and stole from grandmas in the Valley to meet the bottom line.
Just as Homer’s Duff-guzzling alcoholism reflects the painful truths about the American family, and similar to the environmental imperialism dramatized in Avatar, Lost has used entertainment to craft a powerful message in creative and interesting ways to get you emotionally charged. Think about it, when was the last time you were moved by an educational pamphlet?
Like Matt Groening and Jame Cameron, Lost’s writers have tapped into underlying cultural currents with the Dharma Initiative. Whether users consciously recognize it or not, it’s incredible powerful commentary on America’s corporate culture.