Mini Case Study: Heal The Bay on how to make a video go viral
Social innovators can learn from each others’ successes and failures. That’s the idea behind Dowser’s Mini Case Studies, real-world stories showing how changemakers confront practical challenges.
The environmental advocacy group Heal the Bay has identified marine debris as a core problem – and an issue ripe for political action. “Sixty to eighty percent of urban runoff is plastic,” says the group’s Communications Director Matthew King. “You just need to take a walk along the shoreline after a rainy day and you’ll see. We have to do something about plastic.” For five years, the group has been sponsoring bag ban bills in state and local legislatures, educating on marine debris issues, and leading beach clean-ups and other actions. In spring 2010, when the California plastic bag ban – AB1998 – finally came up in the state senate, the group knew it needed a big push if the bill had a chance of becoming law. But Heal the Bay had no budget for a major media campaign.
King met with longtime advertising agency partner DDB, whose group Creative Director Kevin McCarthy is a Heal the Bay supporter and volunteer. To succeed, they knew they needed to appeal to emotion to personalize the story, and to make the video funny instead of didactic. McCarthy and others agreed to work pro-bono on a nature mockumentary, a film exploring the life of a plastic bag. They brought in Partisan Pictures to produce the film and Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons to do the voice-over. Once they saw the film, King’s colleagues knew they had a powerful communication tool. To promote it, they sent it around to sites like Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, and the UK Guardian. Within a few days it was the second most-watched video on YouTube. “I think it went viral because of the compelling storytelling that combined humor, drama and education,” said King. “I liked that what had been thought of as the villain – the plastic bag – became an unlikely hero as it fought off all these challenges to make it to the ocean.”
“The [film] drew people in in a way nothing had been able to before,” King said. Although AB1998 did not pass, King considers the campaign a success. Thousands of people beyond Heal the Bay’s usual supporters responded by sending letters. Local legislators – including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who watched video with his staff – have taken up the plastic bag ban cause. Schools and other institutions across the country have asked for copies of the video to distribute. The video demonstrated the power of storytelling and entertainment in campaigns that can otherwise be filled with “so much doom and gloom,” said King. “The outstanding production values, Jeremy Irons’ understated narration, the stirring music and the bits of humor all made for an entertaining – rather than hectoring – film.” He added: “This made us look like a creative risk taker and smart communicator and advocate – and it now really is a calling card for us.”