Your video is not a magic bullet

It was a Sunday night in October some 80 years ago when a radio show wreaked havoc across the country.

Actor Orson Welles narrated an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, about aliens invading Earth. In this radio dramatization, news bulletins interrupted supposed regular programming to announce that Martians had touched down in New Jersey.

Later, an announcer reported hurriedly that the creatures fired heat-ray weapons at onlookers and overcame the U.S. military.

Real fake news

Amidst a climate of anxiety and tension (World War II would start one year later), listeners panicked. Reportedly, police stations were flooded with thousands of calls, and electric companies were asked to turn off power so that the aliens wouldn’t see their lights.

“After the broadcast,” Welles later said, “I was blocked by an impassioned crowd of news people looking for blood, and the disappointment when they found I wasn’t hemorrhaging.”

(Scholars have said that accounts of panic were greatly exaggerated.)

Content as a magic bullet

The “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and the panic it caused is often cited as an example of the Magic Bullet Theory (also called Hypodermic Needle Theory).

This model was rooted in behaviorism, the idea that all action is a conditioned response to external stimuli. Think Pavlov’s salivating dogs.

According to the Magic Bullet Theory, mass media had a direct, immediate, and powerful effect on its audiences. People are passive and defenseless in the face of media messages, which are directly “injected” into their bloodstream like fluid from a syringe.

In other words, if people watch X, they will always do Y.

Would that it were true

Of course, we know now that this isn’t exactly true—humans are much more complicated than that.

In fact, “War of the Worlds” helped disprove the Magic Bullet Theory, as it led researchers to discover that reactions of the broadcast were diverse and situational.

But how often do we think of video, or any piece of content, as a way to get viewers to do what we want?

Of course, we can’t pretend as though we don’t care what they do. We can’t ignore the question. It’s part of any sound strategy.

But instead of thinking of video solely as a mechanism of persuasion, it’s helpful to think of it as a way to build relationships.

Image poster that says, "Video can't make your viewers do something. No piece of content can.

Persuasion is short-term thinking. When video is used to build relationships, it can help you achieve your long-term vision and goals.

That requires a critical shift in thinking. When you think about creating your next video, instead of asking, “How can I convince my audience to care about us?” ask a much more valuable question:

“What does my audience care about?”

Featured photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.


Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.