The Successories President

The posterized secret of Obama's success?


On that historic evening in November, as Barack Obama definitively made passé the notion that we cannot, the president-elect's acceptance speech signified a triumph not just for his campaign but for motivational wall décor. Like a Successories catalog made flesh, Obama invoked burning beacons, long roads, steep climbs, and new dawns. He was lofty, he was declamatory, he was as aesthetically challenging as a majestic golf course on a crisp autumn morning. And yet his well-worn rhetoric managed to move multitudes. Could it be that all those corny corporate psalms to Character and Service, the ones hanging in regional sales offices and telemarketing call centers across the nation, have touched us more deeply than we realized?

Like Ryan Seacrest, Successories posters appear to be a permanent, ubiquitous fixture of modern life. And like Ryan Seacrest, they don't get a lot of respect. The wall-decorations first appeared in 1988, the brainchild of Chicago-area entrepreneur Mac Anderson. Their most immediate predecessor was an extremely adorable form of self-propaganda that grew popular in the 1970s: the kitten-in-jeopardy poster. It featured a tiny feline clinging to a tree branch—or sometimes a rope—and the inspirational message, "Hang in there!" In time, other photogenic species and uplifting messages were incorporated into the genre, providing an increasing supply of motivational energy to melancholy teens, jilted lovers, kindergarten teachers, orthodontists, and maybe even the occasional bank manager.

For many workplaces, however, such imagery was too cutesy, too trivial. That's where Mac Anderson stepped in. His lithographs gave inspirational wall art a professional, corporate veneer. They were framed. Their stately, elegiac images of nature were beautiful—but also suitably masculine and impersonal. They featured dramatic black borders and classy fonts. Their meditations on Attitude and Teamwork, sometimes running more than 30 words long, were positively weighty compared to the three-word jokes accompanying imperiled animals.

Amid the personal computer revolution and its relentless calls for increased productivity, Anderson's wares represented an ingenious technological breakthrough. Successories were office decor that multi-tasked! They spruced up the workplace as much as a potted bamboo palm but with substantially more instruction. Such utility made them an easy choice for office managers looking for something safe and commendable to put on the walls. Why not go with the product that, along with a tasteful visual, let workers know that success was a journey, not a destination?

By 1996 Anderson's company was generating $55 million a year in sales and shipping 3,000 framed prints a day. But while the posters were popular, they were far from beloved. Part of the problem was that many of the companies displaying them didn't always abide by the virtues they espoused. But it was more than that. Even in the most functional workplaces, the posters were obtrusive, didactic, a touch Orwellian. Who really wants to be told how to do his job by a picturesque tree stump, or even a noble eagle?

Unlike earlier iterations of workplace propaganda, Successories prints didn't merely encourage employees to meet monthly productivity goals or measure twice and cut once. They seemed more interested in manufacturing better people than in maximizing profits. They championed risk taking in the name of personal growth, not financial reward. They had nothing to say about supply chains or returns on investment; their interests were integrity, courage, compassion, cooperation. And boy, were they earnest! While the rest of America—or at least secular, media-elite America—had traded in high-minded, humor-free sincerity for irony, self-deprecation, and glib, jaded knowingness at least three decades earlier, the Successories collection spoke in a voice completely uninflected by Mad magazine, the Madison Avenue creative revolution, Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, French literary theory, Dilbert, or even the occasional gentle skepticism of America's first national life coach, Ben Franklin.

It was only a matter of time before someone spoofed the suddenly ubiquitous posters. In the mid-1990s, E.L. Kersten and twin brothers Jef and Justin Sewell, all of whom worked at a Dallas Internet service provider, decided that there were no prints in the Successories collection that reflected their employer's real values. Where were the posters championing mediocrity, failure, and procrastination?

At first they made their parodies for simple self-amusement, using stock photography CD-ROMs and the company's color printer to produce knock-offs to hang in their offices. Then, when their co-workers began requesting posters of their own, they realized they could turn such discontent into a business. In 1998, they pooled their savings and started Despair Inc. Their posters offered the same graphic richness as the Successories originals, and the copy adopted the same decorous tone, but they replaced the earnest maxims with more pragmatic observations and downbeat rules for business survival. "Meetings," reads one. "None of us is as dumb as all of us." "Get to work," reads another. "You aren't being paid to believe in the power of your dreams."

In addition to pitching product to retailers at industry trade shows, Despair set up a website to sell directly to customers. In a way, it was one of the first bloggers, a meta-company offering commentary on another company's wares in the form of its own. In doing so, it helped establish the Internet as a heckler's medium, a venue for debunkers, fact checkers, skeptics, cynics, parodists. It spoke in the same voice as The Daily Show and The Onion—the voice of the irreverent iconoclast puncturing the pretensions of established institutions.

For most of the last two decades, of course, pretty much everyone has wanted to speak in that voice. Multiplatinum rock stars marketed themselves under the label "alternative." IPO-obsessed businessmen called themselves cultural revolutionaries. Abstinent teens positioned themselves as rebels bucking conventional mores. Wildly successful radio hosts and Web auteurs masqueraded as disenfranchised outsiders. Entrenched Beltway fixtures labeled themselves mavericks.

At the same time, virtually no one has wanted to speak in the sincere, unhip, pious voice of Successories. Until the 2008 elections, that is. And surprisingly, it wasn't the septuagenarian country-first war veteran who embraced the Successories ethos. It wasn't the God-loving small-town hockey mom either. They were the Despair candidates. They were the ones deploying the most snarky rejoinders and glib asides. They were the ones pricking their opponent's lofty pretensions with sarcasm and casting themselves as skeptical hecklers of the establishment embodied by Washington, The New York Times, and Katie Couric.

Yes, Barack Obama attacked the establishment too, and he even uttered a wisecrack from time to time. But what the Democrat really scored with was his unflagging commitment to maximally generic uplift. "Yes, we can!" he exclaimed at rally after rally, his message as upbeat and unchanging as an "Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference" poster that has been hanging in some accounting firm's lobby for the last 20 years. Obama wasn't afraid to embrace such earnestness. He didn't worry about looking uncool, naive, embarrassingly sincere. And apparently at least 68.9 million Americans were primed for someone exactly like that.

This change hasn't gone unnoticed at Successories. "We've been having a lot of conversations about
Barack Obama here," exclaimed Scott Dorman, the man who currently writes the copy for the company's posters, when I called him in the wake of the election. "There's nothing more positive than the word yes, and I don't know that we use it blatantly in any way. I haven't really explored it yet [as a theme for a poster]. But on Election Night, it was kind of screaming out at you."

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.