Facebook’s former director of monetisation Tim Kendall has has a great deal of wisdom. And his insights are a terrific resource for filmmakers. His way of connecting Big Tobacco and Facebook offers useful strategic advice to filmmakers and storytellers.
Kendal left Facebook in 2010. Since then he has been monitoring their development. He has been intrigued how this particular social media platform has grown so large and so fast using tools that could be very important to filmmakers too.
Tim Kendal’s Theory connecting Big Tobacco And Facebook
According to Kendal, Facebook sought to mine as much money as possible from human intervention. To do this they took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook. Facebook, like Big Tobacco sought to make their product as addictive as possible.
Big Tobacco originally thought they could achieve a bigger audience and hence more sales by simply making their product more potent. But they discovered that this wasn’t enough to increase their sales. So they added sugar and menthol to their cigarettes so smokers could breathe deeper and hold the smoke longer in their lungs.
In the early Facebook days, a simple directory kept users returning almost every single day, but commercial demands meant that Facebook needed to have users returning multiple times each day. So their engineers added updates, likes and photo tagging. This lifted the primary user experience to one of status and reputation. Although Facebook was starting to achieve the engagement necessary to sell more and more advertising, it also laid the groundwork for the growing mental health issues we are experiencing today.
Big Tobacco’s Playbook
The next page in Big Tobacco’s playbook was to add bronchodilators to their cigarettes. This allowed the smoke to get into greater contact with more areas of the lungs. This also increases addiction. Big tobacco was tightening its hold on smokers despite all the health issues that were being universally raised.
The ‘bronchodilators’ for Facebook are similarly addictive. They allow misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news to flourish.
But that poisonous content wasn’t enough for Big Tobacco. They added ammonia to their tobacco to increase the speed at which nicotine travelled to the brain.
Facebook’s ability to deliver this incendiary content to the right person at the right place in the right day – is their ammonia. It is their algorithm. And we now know that it fosters tribalism and division.
What filmmakers can learn from this
What both Big Tobacco and Facebook share is their ability to make their products addictive. What filmmaker wouldn’t want their viewers to return to their film time and time again?
What makes Facebook so successful is their ability to elicit an emotional response from their users. And this is exactly the same goal storytellers seek to achieve.
When Simon Hunter created the Raindance 2020 trailer, he was able to convey the feeling each of us have felt during COVID-19. The end result was a 90 second combination of 5 different COVID-19 stories: the tired nurse, the elbow bump, social distancing and the hand on the windowpane separating daughter and elderly parents. Most viewers comment that they had a tear in their eye at the end. And for Raindance it has been a hugely successful campaign.
Big Tobacco and Facebook’s lessons for independent filmmakers
Let’s not be cowed by the mammoths in industry like big tobacco and Facebook. Let’s see what we can take from each of their playbooks and apply it to our stories and films.
From Big Tobacco, let’s learn how to engage our audiences. Let’s see if we can create any sort of interactivity between characters and audience that compels our viewers to stay longer and go deeper.
From Facebook, let’s use their powerful logarithms for our own stories. Storytellers can piggyback onto these powerful tools.
Author and filmmaker Kira-Anne Pelican has developed fascinating research on algorithms, similar to those used by companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, which can be used by storytellers. You can actually learn to develop powerful seeds in your storyline. She calls her Raindance lecture Moneyball for Filmmakers where she explains the basics of this powerful (and free) tool. She also explains how to develop these extremely powerful and potent tools in her Deep Characterisation masterclasses.
I once asked an elderly Japanese fisherman and scriptwriter what he thought made a good story. He answered:
Elliot-san – your body is 75% water. A good movie or story squeezes your body fluid out of an appropriate pore.
Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what Big Tobacco and Facebook do? They elicit emotion. And that’s exactly what you and I try to do with our movies and scripts.