Killer Content: Why We're Afraid of Sharks and Not Vending Machines

While paddling out on a surfboard for the first time, I was overcome with a chilling feeling that many can relate to: the feeling that a great white shark was lurking just below.

To ease my noticeable trepidation, my friend, a seasoned surfing vet, was quick to remind me of an oft-cited surfer quip. “Dude,” he said, “you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get eaten by a shark.” And statistically speaking, he’s right. Chances of an attack are one in 11,500,000.1

I could argue that while out there in a black rubber suit flailing around like an injured seal pup, my chances of getting eaten go up significantly—much more so than, let’s say, someone sitting in a field in Nebraska, who will never, ever be eaten by a shark but can definitely get struck by lightning.

Yet, no matter how I try to rationalize my fear, a shark actually eating someone is a very rare event—it only happens between one to four times a year—even more so when considering that hippos kill 2,900 people annually, jellyfish kill 20-40 people a year (in the Philippines alone), icicles kill 100 people per year and vending machines (yes, vending machines) kill roughly 13 people per year.

so, why the heck am i afraid of sharks and not vending machines?

Even though we’d like to believe otherwise, it’s been proven time and again that people let their emotions influence what should be logical decisions. And the fact that I am more worried about something that is less likely to harm me than, well, just about everything else is a shining example of that phenomenon.

The question is, why am I (and numerous other people) worried about sharks specifically and not all of those other things? Well for one, because sharks are scary creatures. At least, I believe they are. And that belief is all that really matters. But it’s where that belief has been cultivated that provides an intriguing answer to the question above.

killer content

Since Jaws first instilled fear into the hearts of millions in 1975, the gray beasts of the deep have seen a near-endless stream of killer content produced on their behalf. And because people responded to the fear factor, now when we see a shark—whether on the big screen, during weeklong television marathons, in a magazine article or even on news coverage—they’re almost always eating someone. It no doubt makes for memorable content, the type that strikes such an emotional chord that it quite literally stops people from going out into the ocean on a daily basis.

Since the average person has no reference point for sharks other than their depiction in various forms of content, it stands to reason that compelling content alone caused people to take an action (i.e., not go in the ocean). And action is precisely what we are trying to inspire as marketers.

At its most basic, the purpose of branding and advertising is to get someone to do something, whether that be buy, sign up or simply think a certain way. But unfortunately, far too often we put too much emphasis on only those objectives, and the content we create suffers for it.

Think about the shark content. The producers didn’t create it with the goal of depopulating the ocean’s beaches. There’s no sales pitch, no call-to-action at the end of any of it. Nothing at all telling us what to do or what not to do. You know what to do when you see it (i.e., don’t go in the water). You feel it, and it inspires you to do something.

They created content with the purpose of getting people to watch, read and interact with it. They set out to connect in some way with people (in this case scare the S#*! out of them), and they did it so well that it affected the decision making process.

So, in this case, some well-crafted content can clearly get people to avoid something, but typically that’s the opposite response we’d like to see when marketing a brand. It just so happens that it works the other way as well.

from sharks to clownfish

The makers of the Pixar film Finding Nemo set out tell a memorable story that would entertain scores of children and adults alike. And they did just that, proof positive by the fact that it became the single greatest selling DVD of all time. But DVD sales weren’t the only revenue number that skyrocketed.

The byproduct of creating a story that people connected with emotionally, and a character that they fell in love with, was a swift rise in consumer demand for—you can probably guess— clownfish.

People truly fell for Nemo and instead of buying a goldfish or a turtle for their pet, they started buying Nemos. In this case, a movie that had no sales goals around selling any real, live clown fish, helped sell more than anything else ever could have.2

In fact, Disney (Pixar) has done this a few times. First with the American Cocker Spaniel (with Lady and the Tramp), which led to the breed’s now consistent popularity, and more recently with the remake of 101 Dalmatians, which led to twice as many Dalmatians ending up in shelters across America. Why? Because emotion won out of over logic: “In the movie, the Dalmatians are cute and fun…. and many were given to children as gifts on Christmas after the release of Disney's remake of the movie. But once home, they shed, tend to snap sometimes bite, and often do not like children…”3

Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, we can assume Disney didn’t plan to single-handedly affect the lives of pet store owners and dog breeders everywhere. And that is, in part, precisely why the content was so great. The goal was to entertain and connect. They just so happened to put these these animals at the center of masterful content, and because of it, consumers were inspired to take action.

stop thinking like marketers and start thinking like movie producers.

When you set out to create content for your brand, take a lesson from Nemo and Jaws. Instead of asking only the typical questions—What are the sale goals for this content? Should we make an anthem, a social video or a product spot? What’s unique selling proposition or feature should we focus on? How do we measure this? What’s the ROI going to be?—think like movie and television producers:

1. Get your story in order.

Have a clear understanding of the unique narrative you want to tell.

2. Know your audience.

Do your homework. Through watching, listening and asking, understand what drives your target and what matters to them.

3. Ask yourself, “Will our audience watch? Will they care?”

Use your insight into the consumer’s lives to help you think about what will connect.

4. Most importantly, think about ROI after the content is produced.

ROI conversations too early in the content creation process tend to lead us away from the best ideas. Movie producers, for example, have no sure-fire way of knowing whether their content will be a smash hit at the box office. But if they understand their audience and their story, then hire the right producers, director, storytellers, actors, and put the right budget behind it, they can rest assured that success will follow. Take a note from them and measure the ROI after the release, then use the learnings for the sequel.

If you set to create a piece of content that above all else will connect, inspire and move people, as long as your brand is at the center of it, the rest—including the consumer taking action—will come.

Contact us to learn more about how branded content can help your brand inspire customers.

1 Animal Planet
2 The Human Society
3 The New York Times
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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