Content creation and entertainment are inextricably linked. At the end of the day, people consume any kind of content for only two reasons: if it’s informative and if it’s entertaining. There are content topics, though, where the concept of “entertainment” needs to be handled carefully.
We had to ask ourselves:
How to tackle campaigns that revolve around a sensitive topic such as abuse of physical and psychological kind, humanitarian emergencies, dramatic medical conditions and many more of this particular kind?
We think that sharing some of the challenges we encountered on our journey to help WAP can give interesting insights and tools on how to work with delicate topics.
Having worked for years on campaigns to protect endangered animals worldwide, the World Animal Protection marketing team had a pretty clear idea on how to handle sensitive topics.
Thanks to the collaboration with them, we managed to avoid some tricky traps along the path of deciding how to show the distress of elephants held captive and abused in the tourism / entertainment industry. You can check out the final result here and here are the five lessons learned while working for this noble cause.
1.THE GRAPHIC IMAGERY TRAP
When working on a campaign focused on sensitive topic there’s always the “shock card” that can be played: show graphical images to get an immediate emotional reaction from the audience.
This technique can be, however, a double-edged sword. Regardless of how sensitive the audience can be towards the issue the campaign is trying to tackle, individuals can be so affected by graphical images that they might shy away from taking action. Everybody’s sensitivity is set on a different level and can result in an opposite reaction.
During our first brainstorming with the WAP team, we knew that scenes of direct violence on the elephants were to be avoided, favouring an approach that would focus on empathy and on visual and audio hints to imply violence, without showing it.
2.THE SPECIFICITY TRAP
The other issue related to the use of the “shock card” is related to the human tendency to establish a distance from images that depict an unhealthy situation. That’s how we are biologically wired: we see disease and undesirable images and the immediate reaction is to start drawing an imaginary line between “us” and “them”. “This issue is happening in Africa, not in my country, why should I be concerned?” “What this condition does is terrible on a human level, but it will never affect MY family.” A little switch is activated in our brain that tries to put as much distance as possible between us and the problems that are posed in front of our eyes; it’s a short-term survival instinct “Get as far as you can from this issue, create some distance” is what the brain is suggesting us to do.
Leaving violence “out-of-the-picture” allows each viewer to apply his/her level of sensitivity and imagination to the story they’re watching. This approach has a very powerful reaction in the viewer’s mind: the violent or shocking activity implied and not shown is as strong as the audience can take.
Most Oscar Wilde critics agree that the first edition of Dorian Gray is the most intriguing compared to the following ones because Dorian’s malicious acts are not explained in details: he is as evil and corrupted as the readers wants him to be. Great cinema is full of brilliant examples of implied violence too. In “Sleepers”, Barry Levinson lets our imagination run wild while the camera slowly pans away from the reform school vault where the worst possible act of violence are taking place (check the scene out here).
This is why the animation team of Nucco Brain has deliberately left any violent act -like the shooting of the young elephant parents- to happen off-screen. We see the consequences of the violence, never the violence itself.
How to solve the possible issue of being over-specific? By stressing the attention on empathy, leveraging on the power of stylisation.
3. THE POWER OF STYLIZATION
By stylization, we mean a deliberate design choice to eliminate all unnecessary visual information that can divert the audience attention away from the key message we want to communicate.
Colette Collins, Deputy Director of Communications at World Animal Protectionputs it very clearly “We chose to tell our story through an animation to convey this complex issue in a simple way.”
The “simple way” she refers to is exactly what makes animation so powerful.
The Director of the film, Pedro Allevato, and his team used this technique to get the best possible result: “We wanted to convey what actually happens to the elephants behind the curtains, without being specific or graphical about it. Therefore, we kept the baby elephant, after he was taken away from his mom, always under a spotlight, as if this was also part of the attraction. The theatrical film has strong resemblance to the old puppet shows, the use of silhouettes and watercolours transitions gives it a special melancholic feeling. This aesthetic approach, allowed us to be extremely expressive and sensitive and poetic with this story. And I hope it will touch the audience in the most deep way”
The WAP animated film is extremely expressive thanks to stylization: we focused on the main protagonist a female baby elephant and told her story in a powerful, stylised way, in which one scene is connected to the other by using emotional transitions that allow the audience to engage with a strong level of empathy. Stylised images are more powerful because they break the barrier of specificity and hit the chords of empathy.
4. EMPATHY ALWAYS WINS
There is a reason why animated films, comics and cartoons are the entertainment products that more easily spread across different markets. Think about how many anime and mangas are international successes against live-action Japanese films.
When you selectively take away specificity from an image through stylization, it becomes more universal. A stylised character is more similar to the idea that the viewer has of him/herself. By choosing which elements to stress on a character, a visual storyteller can make the content he is working on more or less broad in terms of empathy.
Think about the “smiley”, its simplicity enables it to depict virtually every face on Earth: two eyes and a mouth, everybody has them, we are the smiley. If you want to explore this concept further, Scott McCloud talk extensively about it on the 2nd chapter of “Understanding Comics”.
5. ANIMATION IS IMMEDIACY
As a marketer, brand manager or product owner, the need of creating a message that is straight to the point and effective in an era of super-quick interaction is paramount.
Animation and stylisation allow for that immediacy, together with an immediate visual association with branding visual guidelines
As Colette Collins from WAP puts it: “With this animation we can educate and open up the public’s eyes to the cruelty behind elephant riding, and to inspire them to be a part of the solution to help end the cruelty.”
The immediacy and iconic power of animation inspire empathy, the most powerful of human emotions, because it makes people care.
MD of Nucco Brain, visual storytelling studio
We tell stories. Your stories. Visually.