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Decision Science News

July 25, 2010

Adding Punch to Influence Public Opinion

THE Harmony Institute wants to change your mind ?? at the movies. In the last few weeks, a little-noticed nonprofit with big ideas about the persuasive power of movies and television shows quietly began an initiative aimed at getting filmmakers and others to use the insights and techniques of behavioral psychology in delivering social and political messages through their work.

Adding Punch to Influence Public Opinion


THE Harmony Institute wants to change your mind — at the movies.

In the last few weeks, a little-noticed nonprofit with big ideas about the persuasive power of movies and television shows quietly began an initiative aimed at getting filmmakers and others to use the insights and techniques of behavioral psychology in delivering social and political messages through their work.

Harmony, based in New York, was organized by John S. Johnson III, a co-founder of the viral media site and a descendant of a Johnson & Johnson founder, Robert Wood Johnson, and by Adam Wolfensohn, an investment banker who was a producer of the climate change documentary “Everything’s Cool.” It was a favorite at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

In an interview, Mr. Johnson said the institute was born from his own perception that environmental and social messages in films and television shows were often ineffective.

“It felt like a lot of preaching to the choir,” said Mr. Johnson, who spoke of the limited ability of a blatant message movie like “An Inconvenient Truth” actually to change minds. “It’s not reaching people, it’s not expanding the choir.”

By contrast, he said, a popular adventure like “The Day After Tomorrow,” which wrapped its global warming message in a rip-roaring story, appeared to alter attitudes among young and undereducated audiences who would never see a preachy documentary.

Mr. Johnson made a study of what his group calls “the science of influence,” with the help of friends like Kenneth Broad, a director of Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, and Eric Johnson, a professor of business and marketing at Columbia, both of whom are now on the institute’s advisory committee.

Michael Douglas, the actor, who according to a spokesman is related, through his mother, to Mr. Johnson’s family, became involved after a conversation in which Mr. Johnson argued that movies like “The China Syndrome,” about the dangers of nuclear power, pointed the way.

So far, the group has not done much, except to organize its own thinking and to issue a recent report, with backing from the Pacific Foundation and the advocacy group Free Press, called “FTW! Net Neutrality for the Win: How to Use Entertainment and the Science of Influence to Save Your Internet.”

The report suggests, mundanely enough, that people can be persuaded to support net neutrality if they see story lines about children who fall behind in school because they lack access to the Web, or about small-business owners who “risk financial ruin” when they cannot reach customers because a site is blocked or slowed down.

Mr. Johnson said the institute focused first on net neutrality mostly because it had interested backers in Free Press and the Pacific Foundation, though he also finds the issue to be both important and little understood. But the report also promises a sophisticated attempt to change attitudes on a range of issues — the report cites films and shows that have affected the perception of homosexuality (“Will & Grace”), legislation on violence against women (“The North Country”), and literacy in the third world (through telenovelas like “Ven Conmigo”) — by using applied behavioral science.

“When audiences enter a fictional world they take a mental journey that allows them to suspend the confines of their traditional beliefs,” the report says.

Mr. Johnson rejected the notion that a deliberate attempt to program opinion might be unduly manipulative. “Top Gun,” he said of Tom Cruise’s classic pro-military fly-boy adventure, “is a fantastically persuasive movie.”

Martin Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the University of Southern California, agreed that attempts to massage the audience are commonplace.

“All storytellers are manipulators,” Mr. Kaplan said by e-mail last week. He said that the “designated driver” concept was helped by mentions in movies and television shows, while Viacom supported a companywide AIDS awareness campaign on its various networks.

The marketplace, Mr. Kaplan said, generally keeps entertainment from becoming too didactic. “Audiences can smell propaganda a mile away,” he wrote.

Even so, the institute’s alignment with positions that would mostly be categorized as progressive might confirm the view of Hollywood as consistently leaning left. The institute’s advisory committee also includes some heavy-hitters from the entertainment and media worlds, including Mr. Douglas, Ridley Scott, Ted Hope and Arianna Huffington.

Mr. Hope, an independent producer whose recent credits include “Adventureland” and “Towelhead,” said the institute’s work would be useful to filmmakers whose work is more issues-oriented than his. “I am not so much in the message business as the entertainment business,” he said in an e-mail message.

In television, networks typically have given writers and producers considerable discretion over the ideas and attitudes embedded within shows, as long as a message does not blatantly offend or unduly disrupt a story line.

Still, Mr. Johnson’s focus on net neutrality may pose a challenge for creative types who are working for companies that have significant interests in the Internet world.

Comcast, which is poised to take control of NBC Universal, for instance, has pushed for a cautious approach to regulations that might restrict its management of broadband systems, arguing that the Internet has been reasonably open so far and that excessive regulation might strangle growth. So a story about the plight of “grassroots campaigners” who find their political struggles curtailed by a service provider’s censorship, as suggested by Harmony, might have a tough climb.

“We’re breaking ground here,” said Mr. Johnson, who acknowledged that much had yet to be figured out.

But, he insisted, persuasion is inseparable from entertainment — and the only real question is whether it works.

“If it is conscious and if it has rigor, it’s much more effective,” he said.


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