Change before your eyes: Documentary as a tool for impact and behaviour change

March 1, 2019

When the aim is to change behaviour, storytelling should be part of the plan – and it’s certainly something we call upon at The Social Deck. Stories can be delivered in all sorts of packages. For social issues, one impactful technique is documentary.

Documentaries are on trend

Whether it’s because we’re hungrier for them or producers are getting better at making them more consumable, we can fill our plates with docos. Between streaming services and traditional media, not only are there more documentaries to watch, the window to see them stays open far longer.

In the last twenty years, Australia’s rate of production for documentaries has doubled, and production of documentary series has increased sixfold. These figures are reflected, if not exactly matched, in trends internationally.

And many of these documentaries are tackling big issues, putting social or environmental impacts front and centre. From the treatment of Orcas at Seaworld as told through Blackfish, which first transfixed us to understand the dangerous conditions facing these captive animals and their trainers; to the compelling truths about climate change told in An Inconvenient Truth; or the revelation of where clothing really comes from in The True Cost.

You might even change a behaviour because of a documentary.

Documentaries as catalyst for change

How much a person is influenced by a documentary depends on what they bring to their viewing experience.

There’s potentially longer lasting effects when someone seeks out information – this might be about a cause, or something they want to change. Perhaps they’ve been wanting to change their eating habits, and seek out a documentary like Food Inc, which can give them the information, motivation, and framework to change their lifestyle.

However, stumbling upon a good documentary can also be a catalyst for changes in someone’s behaviour or attitudes. It can provide the shock to the system necessary for that moment of epiphany. Perhaps on a lazy Sunday you’re scrolling through Netflix and half-recognise the poster for something a friend recommended – next thing you know, you’re watching Morgan Spurlock vomit in Super Size Me, and you’ve sworn never to eat fast food again.

Repetition can also reinforce the behaviour change, which is where documentary series can help. For many, War on Waste has become appointment viewing, and directly correlates to a change in what goes into their wheelie bin week after week.

So why does documentary make such an impact?

For a start, we like human faces. We want to see the real, raw feeling move across a person’s features. We want to see and hear the actual people involved in an issue, and to be invited into the story. Whether it’s a Seaworld trainer in tears or Morgan Spurlock as he vomits up his umpteenth Big Mac, we are right there with them, building a relationship. This intimacy creates a real emotional and physical connection and builds empathy. In a broader context, documentary is the next best thing to being in that situation yourself. Authenticity is key to creating a sense of ownership of the issue and being in the ‘in’ group. If a documentary can successfully attach itself to a person’s sense of identity and values, it will go a long way towards change.

Aside from the emotional stuff, documentaries also do what they say on the tin – they offer evidence by literally documenting the issue. Documentary is a form of (arguably trustworthy) journalism, and ideally presents information from a primary source. Documentaries can be the definitive account of an issue and the final word on a subject.

However, we know that facts don’t necessarily change minds. That’s why modern documentaries use storytelling and narrative devices. Documentarians can take lessons from film and use those techniques and structure to engage the audience and elicit emotional reactions.

And finally, sometimes documentaries make an impact by being upfront. While some include calls to action and some don’t, every social impact documentary sits on a sliding scale of wearing its agenda on its sleeve.

How to make the behaviour change stick (turning emotions into actions)

Simply watching a documentary isn’t likely to instil a lasting behaviour change – but it’s a pretty good start. The evidence shows that when a documentary has an impact, the effect is high but short term, unless the change supported by other strategies. Documentaries may be woven into a social or traditional media campaign, be played as part of a speaking tour, or otherwise be part of a greater activism effort.

Watching a documentary can elicit a big reaction, big emotions and inspire big declarations. If change-makers are prepared to back it up, documentary is undeniable as a powerful tool in the behaviour change kit.

So how do we get more people watching? Well, there’s more and more film festivals featuring these types of documentaries. If you’re in Melbourne over the coming week, get along to a screening at Transitions Film Festival, which “showcases groundbreaking documentaries about social and technological innovations, revolutionary ideas and trailblazing change makers that are leading the way to a better world”.

Or get in touch with the Social Deck to chat to our Video Production Specialist TameFox Productions about captivating your audience for social impact!

How can we help?
Casey Harrigan
Production Manager