The Underdog: An American Love Story

Written by NY Press on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


By Courtney Romano

America loves the underdog story. We want to hear how out of the most improbable of circumstances rose the greatest of victors. This is an American story: to find glory in the dimmest chances. We see it play out in presidential politics, in the very founding of our country, in literature, music, even branding. In 2010, Harvard Business Review published the article “Capitalizing on the Underdog Effect,” highlighting a study where consumers were given the choice between two different chocolate brands. The article explains, “One brand had an underdog story: We described it as small and new, competing against powerhouses like Lindt and Godiva. The other brand had a top-dog biography, characterized by experienced founders and a big marketing budget. The result: 71% of subjects chose the underdog chocolate.” The more consumers related to the underdog story themselves – historically marginalized groups such as “women, blue collar workers, ethnic minorities” – the stronger their alignment with the underdog brand.

What is it that makes us prefer a certain chocolate because of the businessperson’s journey to make the chocolate? Is it reclamation of our own personal hardships as springboards to success? Is our own “underdoggedness” actually fertile ground for our greatest growth? Or is it just a band-aid we give ourselves to accept the unmerciful casting of “a person in adversity or in a position of inferiority” as the dictionary describes?

In the impending presidential election, each candidate is vying to be the underdog, and each can claim it in different ways. In October of 2011, George Stephanopoulos asked President Barack Obama if he considered himself an underdog in the campaign to reelection, and the president said without hesitating, “Yes. Absolutely.” One could argue that Obama’s history unequivocally makes him an underdog.  A son of a single mother, odds against him, becomes the leader of the free world. Unlike his opponent, Mitt Romney, who, despite his privileged background, has also touted the coveted title of underdog, as every challenger to an incumbent has the ability to do. There is something so American about the branding of candidates as underdogs. It’s the story we want to hear, especially coming out of a recession and feeling like underdogs ourselves. We want someone to relate to, we want to see the restored vision for our own lives played out so that we can believe in it. As the late Democratic Governor Happy Chandler once said, “We Americans are a peculiar people. We are for the underdog, no matter how much of a dog he is.”

There are really two parts to the underdog story – first, the odds stacked against her, and then, her glorious victory. We love the journey from part one to two. We can look to the Revolutionary War as an historical context for the underdog story. Americans were set to lose – no navy, no military, no economy, no odds. However, as stacked as the British may have been in military, skill, training, and resources, there is a great distinction between those who want to fight and those who need to fight. This is the grit of the underdog – the American inspiration was the idea of a free country. The hope of the future was more compelling than the odds of the present. Americans did not win the war on sheer motivation alone (the French had a little something to do with it), but it was the one tool Great Britain did not have in its chest.

As a people, when the odds are not in our favor is when we perform the best, become the most innovative, creative, determined. Perhaps even the Great Recession has only been the groundwork for what will prove to be the most productive time in American history. The bipartisan and often vitriolic rhetoric we have become accustomed to in the past decade could turn out to be the rock bottom we need to strengthen our democracy – not because we embrace it, but because we once again learn that the humility that results from a broken practice gives us crystallized insight. That’s the gift of the underdog. We can only shift when we have finished falling and reached that hard-learned lesson at the bottom.

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