The viral success of “The Meatrix” shows how a good story trumps a mountain of facts.
I had my doubts about that bull in a manure-smeared trench coat.
It was the day before launch and the video we were viewing one last time had departed wildly from the playbook of social change communication I had been taught to follow. We had spent half the film developing a goofy, maybe distracting, talking-animal spoof on the popular Matrix series—time we could have used to expose more of the brutal facts.
Our brief told us to make our audience feel outraged and saddened by the truth behind their factory-farmed food. Instead we were making them smile. And then there were all those puns. I hate puns.
But The Meatrix was due and there was no going back. The next day, with little ceremony, we flipped the switch, taking the four-minute video live to a few thousand subscribers of sustainable food and animal rights listservs.
Finding the heroes
For the 10 years since we flipped that switch people have been demanding from me the secret to what makes a world-changing story work. As someone who believes that a better future can only be built on the foundation of better stories, it has been the most urgent question of my life.
My journey to the answer began by looking to an early model iPod. This iPod has travelled to every corner of the Internet, changing people’s conceptions of themselves and the world around them. It’s the one Annie Leonard holds up at the beginning of The Story of Stuff and asks, “Do you have one of these?”
What I learned from working with Annie on that series is that the most important social shift of our day is people reawakening to their identity as citizens and leaving behind the outdated consumer mindset. What Annie taught people was that changing the world didn’t mean changing the way we shopped (something had always felt wrong about this dominant sustainability message) but changing ourselves. Millions had been thinking it, quietly; Annie’s story gave them the chance to bring it to the light of day, and instantly share it.
The Story of Stuff taught me something about heroes—a key component of successful storytelling. In the old green-consumer story, the heroes are greener brands that do all the work of saving the world. All you have to do is buy their products. They’ll take care of the rest.
Annie thought there was a very different hero to the story.
One might assume that hero would be Annie herself. After all, she is the ultimate expert. She’d traveled the world for 10 years, gotten all the facts. As she told me, “I probably know more about garbage than anyone else on Earth.” We’d see Annie’s heroics and, at the end, get a request for money so she could continue her work saving the world.
But by holding out the iPod at the beginning of that movie and addressing the audience directly in every scene that follows, Annie is signaling something very different. It’s you, the viewer, who has the potential to be the hero of this story. And that’s what the shift from consumer to citizen is all about. Nobody can sell you premade solutions. The Story of Stuff tells us we must do the hard work of creating solutions ourselves.
People shared that 20-minute lecture about garbage by the millions because it was crafted in a way that encouraged them to see themselves as heroes. Even the act of sharing it came to be seen as a heroic culture-changing act—and it was. One teacher in Montana got in trouble for showing it to her classroom.
The hero’s journey
This idea of telling stories that remind audiences of their hero potential is not a new one. But it has been forgotten in the age of broadcast media—an age that’s thankfully giving up much of its power to social media and citizen-created content. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell developed the concept of the Hero’s Journey, what he considered the formula for enduring myths—or stories that resonate and self-replicate.
In the Hero’s Journey, the hero of the story is the seemingly helpless outsider (the orphan, the slave, the oppressed) who learns she has a destiny far greater than she imagined. She accepts a call from a mentor, takes a dangerous journey, and returns with a gift to make the world a better place. Campbell said that we listened to these stories of unlikely heroes rising to their own power because it made listeners believe they could be heroes in their own lives. That’s what made the great enduring myths successful. That’s what will drive the new successful stories that will change our world.
Since The Story of Stuff, I’ve never crafted a single story that puts my client, myself, or a powerful leader in the role of hero. We are always mentors calling our hero/audiences to action.
And that brings us back to Moopheus and the lesson embedded in The Meatrix. Despite our fears the day we launched, it took less than a year for the video to travel to nearly every country on Earth and reach 15 million people—stupid puns and all.
But it’s not the breadth of The Meatrix’s reach that continues to amaze me. It’s the depth to which this story about the factory farming system, and our responsibility as citizens to stop it, has changed people’s eating habits and even their identities. Ten years later, people are telling me the story of how Moopheus the bull offered them the red pill and changed their worldview forever. The Meatrix, I would come to learn, worked because unlike a straightforward recitation of the ugly facts and what needed to be done, the video combined the key elements of successful myths.
These are the meaning stories that anthropologists believe have held all societies together—telling us who we are, what our tribe believes, and what world we intend to create.
Myths obviously differ across cultures but they all bring together these four elements:
- Explanation: A myth tells us how the world works in a way that expands our knowledge.
- Meaning: From the explanation, we get a sense of our identity and place in the world.
- Story: Myths take place in magic realms that access our symbolic thinking.
- Ritual: They provide us with a way to live the story out in our own lives.
So why did the trench-coated bull succeed in changing people’s identities where tell-all documentaries had failed? Because without having any idea of what we were doing, we had turned a real-world problem into a myth.
Moopheus and his friends provide a shocking explanation of how the world works: Your food is actually being produced by an abusive and dangerous machine that has hijacked farming. But, the film tells us, you have an unknown identity as part of a rebel force that can overthrow the evil machine—that’s the meaning part. This drama doesn’t play out on an actual, horrific kill floor (nobody would have watched that) but in a symbolic world of good and evil, talking animals, and yes, shameless puns—this is the story element. And the ritual? Every day, you can fight the evil forces by eating differently and by recruiting more to the rebellion.
Perhaps mythmaking is not as efficient as just reciting the facts, but using story in this way activates the full spectrum of human motivations—moving people not just to think differently but to be different.
Stories have always steered society and driven real systemic change. For a century the ability to tell stories on a massive scale was held by the powerful few. That power is slipping out of their hands into the hands of every one of us. That may be the best news we face in these rapidly changing and troubling times. Not only can we craft new myths, empowering our audiences as heroes, but we can spread them instantly around the world. That’s what I’ve come to believe from spending a decade thinking about a trench-coated bull.