A filmmaker’s guide to avoid international embarrassment
The talk of the town and the overwhelming topic for opinion pieces over the last two weeks has been, you guessed it; the Milkshake Consent Video. It’s goal? To educate young Australians about the issue of sexual assault and consent. The result? A major national backlash for a confusing and very strange set of videos that used metaphor, comedy and heightened realism to address a very serious issue.
Using storytelling in order to raise awareness about important social issues is not new and when done right is incredibly impactful.
So, when we looked at the ill-fated Milkshake Consent video, we were really curious to dissect and explore why it failed. And we have some ideas to help others try not to make the same mistakes in the future.
Message and Audience
Every piece of communications must start with the two ‘W’s: Why and Who? Why does this message need to be told (what’s its purpose) and who is it for (the audience)? These two very important questions will make for a successful video or not. These two questions will guide the creative, the tone and entire approach to how a film is made.
So, when we look at the message of the MCV, and what its purpose was, straight away we can see it’s serious. Sexual assault and consent is in the zeitgeist right now. It’s a major issue even infiltrating the inner-workings of Parliament. Using comedy could be an option, but we need to take into consideration a few things before we explore that approach; namely, the audience. Who are these films targeted at? Teenagers. What do we know about teenagers? They process information differently to adults. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, “The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.” And, when we are teenagers, we process information with the amygdala which is the emotional centre of the brain. It means that the connection between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making centre are still developing. So… how should we communicate with teenagers on a sensitive, serious and important subject like sexual assault and consent? Clear, direct messaging. Use of real stories over metaphors.
Real stories are a proven way to engage the hearts and minds of people no matter the age. What if we were to do this campaign all over again, and use someone like Grace Tame, our current Australian of the Year and sexual assault survivor, to host the videos and interview other survivors as well as convicted perpetrators of sexual assault? Whilst this might sound heavy, being real about a serious issue like sexual assault and consent is an effective way to communicate with and engage teenagers, who use their amygdala to process information.
For over a decade, us folks at Taste Creative have been pioneering inclusive filmmaking with our sister company Bus Stop Films. Taste incubated Bus Stop from a fledgling idea into a fully sustainable social enterprise over ten years and has prided itself on developing an inclusive filmmaking model that involves people with disability and other underrepresented groups in creating films and content that authentically voice their experiences.
These videos needed to be co-created with experts and survivors of sexual assault. If it had been, I doubt it would have taken on the creative skin it did. Putting the people who have lived experience of a social justice issue at the centre of making content about that same social justice issue is the only way to ensure the content is authentic. The MCV videos are not authentic; they are produced in a studio, with caricatures, within a heightened, highly designed world that feels removed from reality.
We define inclusive filmmaking as the involvement of people from a marginalised or underrepresented community group in all stages of content creation. Consulting does not meet that need. Consulting can often be tokenistic and we recommend against it. It just isn’t enough in our opinion. It doesn’t give the person with lived experience enough authority. We need a diverse and authentic creative team to input into the creative, through involving writers and directors with lived experience in the process, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
You can check out and download the Inclusive Filmmaking Toolkit we created with Bus Stop Films.
Understanding filmmaking techniques and their impact on audiences
When we identify the audience and the message for the content we are going to create, we think about how the way in which we produce the creative will impact the audience. The techniques employed in MCV are;
Heightened realism – we are in a studio, the colours are vibrant and pastel, the world feels heavily constructed. When we opt to create content in a heightened world, we need to understand what the impact of this will be on the audience. Usually when filmmakers create a heightened world the desired effect is to minimize the sense of reality and increase a sense of escapism into a different universe. Not ideal if you want teenagers to recognise their world in the videos in order to relate to it seriously.
Heightened characters – heightened characters are usually employed as comedic devices to elicit humour. Think of all your favourite comedies; Kath and Kim, Big Bang Theory, New Girl, The Office – all the characters are exaggerated, and because of that, they make us laugh because they subvert our expectations. It dates all the way back to Commedia dell'arte and the use of masks in performing caricatures. The characters in the MCV videos are so over the top, you’d expect to see them on a kids show. They don’t reflect the real experience of teenagers in school and so we miss the opportunity to connect teenagers to the reality of the issue, because it’s virtually impossible for them to imagine themselves in the characters presented.
Slapstick comedy and other comedic devices - comedy has been used very carefully and also very rarely in other government campaigns about serious issues. A fabulous example is of course Dumb Ways to Die. Why did comedy work really well this time? We had a precedent to tell us it would work; the Darwin Awards: a book of strange and bizarre deaths that people laugh at due to the unbelievable ways in which some people, through their own stupidity or bad luck, die. Whether that is offensive to you or not, doesn’t really matter. The point is, the campaign worked. People find it funny to think about how people might die doing something stupid. We almost roll our eyes; “what were you thinking?”. We’re actually not laughing at injustice when we laugh at the Dumb Ways to Die campaign. We’re laughing at people’s choices that have led to dire consequences for themselves. Now, is the sexual assault of teenagers in that same boat? No. There is a major sense of injustice around this issue, and dealing with youth actually heightens the stakes. Because of this, comedy in whatever form was never going to work.
Understanding filmmaking techniques and how they impact audience engagement is incredibly important when devising creative for a campaign.
The final thought
Success has many fathers, and so does failure. We will likely not be privy to the workings of this campaign, but it’s never just one person’s fault. All the stakeholders involved in the creation of content, from the creatives, to the client writing the briefs and signing off on the creative, need to understand first and foremost; what effect do they want to have on their audience? In this case the effect should have been; a clear understanding of the seriousness of what consent is, and how disregarding it can lead to sexual assault. I think if everyone had been clear on this in the first place, we wouldn’t have been left with an effect of confusion and disconnection.
Genevieve is a global pioneer of inclusive filmmaking and the co-founder of purpose-led film production company Taste Creative and Bus Stop Films, a pioneering, not-for-profit organisation that uses filmmaking to raise the profile of people living with disabilities.