The "Blackfish effect"
On how to bust myths and shift narratives
Welcome to the midweek issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. Today, we’re probing what we mean when we talk about shifting narratives, and why we might want to be more cautious when we set out to bust myths. As always, we turn to academics, artists, and activists for insight.
Sift through research and data to better understand how we can bring about narrative shifts
Earlier today, I was introduced to the work of Ellen Buchman, thanks to story coach Denise Withers and her podcast Foreward: How stories drive change. In her introduction, Withers writes:
If you want to move hearts and minds, then you have to change the narratives that control them. But few people have the time, expertise or research to invest in the long game that is narrative change.
That's where Ellen Buchman and her team at The Opportunity Agenda come in. They run a social justice communication lab, where they work with partners across the continent to help them find new ways to change the stories that shape the world.
After listening to the podcast episode (twice), I bookmarked “Shifting the Narrative”, a report in which the lab examines six examples of narrative change, providing critical insights and proven concepts we can apply to “shift the narrative on issues that matter to us.” Interested? Check it out.
Learn how well-conceived movies can change hearts and minds
In “Shifting the narrative”, researchers from The Opportunity Agenda write about the “blackfish effect.” Never heard of it?
The ‘Blackfish effect’ has become common parlance—used to describe the disastrous impact of a revelatory piece of popular culture on a stalwart business—and has been studied in a number of fields, from the entertainment industry to psychology. —James Cromwell, “Park’s violent response can’t be justified,” San Diego Union Tribune, September 28, 2017.
The term can be traced to the documentary film Blackfish and the impact it had on how people perceived (and talked about) SeaWorld. Released in 2013, the movie set out to raise awareness about orca captivity in the United States, inspired, in part, by the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was fatally attacked by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca during a live show at the wildly popular and profitable theme park.
Blackfish exceeded its producers’ modest expectations, dominated traditional and social media channels, and resulted in significant losses for SeaWorld, which reported one million fewer visitors and an $82 million drop in revenue in 2014. It forever changed the dominant narrative from one in which SeaWorld was internationally regarded as a humane organization that centred the well-being of the animals in its care to one that abused them for the sake of profit.
In its conclusion, the authors of “Shifting the narrative” state:
The Blackfish experience is a blueprint for how even a very modestly financed documentary film can have a huge narrative impact.
They cite the work of Caty Borum Chattoo, executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at the American University School of Communication, who identifies five elements that contributed to the so-called Blackfish effect.
Narrative persuasion and the role of emotion
Amplified community: Online and offline grassroots activism
Cultivated media narrative
Strategic layered distribution
Public call to action embedded in the story
To read more about these success factors, read Borum Chattoo’s book Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change.
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