Technically Human: Episode 1 Transcript

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Katie Cantu: Hi there, I’m Katie Cantu, strategist at Ignite Partnership.

Mike Covert: And I’m Mike Covert, founder of Ignite Partnership.

Katie: You’re listening to “Technically Human,” where marketing experts talk about how to find the soul in technology products and services. What really makes humans tick when it comes to tech? Join us on our cultural expedition to find out.

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Mike: We have a special subject today on “Technically Human.” We’re actually going to talk about an Academy Award-nominated movie that really focuses on the convoluted inner workings of the sub‑prime mortgage crisis. Sounds like a snoozer? Well, it wasn’t, but there’s also something it can teach us about marketing.

Katie: I guess we should go ahead and introduce our special guest today.

Mike: Craig!

Craig Mewbourne: Hi!

Mike: You’re a celebrity to us, but go ahead and introduce yourself.

Craig: I’m Craig Mewbourne, I’m a creative director at Ignite Partnership, I’ve been here about seven years, and it’s been a really fun journey seeing our capabilities around technology marketing grow.

Katie: Excellent. So, the Oscars are coming up and one of the Best Picture nominees this year is “The Big Short.”

Mike: It is that time of the year we talk about award winners, and this cast is star‑studded. You’ve got Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and—I found this interesting, just considering the subject—Adam McKay, who also directed “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” directed this film.

Katie: Which seems like an odd resume for the director of this movie, because for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, “The Big Short” is a movie based on a true story about a group of high‑finance outsiders who bet against big banks and actually win. Essentially, during the housing crisis of 2007, a handful of rogue investors made a ton of money off of a prediction that the housing bubble would burst and lenders would be in trouble. Spoiler alert—they were right.

Mike: So why would a bunch of marketing experts then talk about “The Big Short?” Well, here at Ignite, one of the more common challenges we face is explaining very technological, complex propositions that come from technology products and services.

Craig: Right.

Mike: Katie suggested that we watch this after her impression from the movie was, “Wow, what an interesting, complex topic that this movie brought to life,” really using— what I thought the main vehicle was, which I didn’t know previously—was breaking the fourth wall.

Katie: Right.

Mike: And I thought that provided quite a few lessons that we might be able to take as marketers to the craft of explaining propositions.

Craig: Yeah. The director had a lot of complex ideas that he needed to get across clearly. He had choices in the way that he could do that, and breaking the fourth wall—which you mentioned, [and] maybe some of the listeners don’t know—is a stage term for when the actors speak directly to the audience. It’s typically kind of a no‑no, because it relieves the dramatic tension of the story too soon. It was interesting how the director chose to employ breaking the fourth wall as a tactic to get across these complex ideas.

He had a number of different choices in the ways that he could do that. One could be a classroom situation, a whiteboard, it could have been very dry and still have gotten the same information across. In this case, they broke away into three separate vignettes that involved celebrities speaking directly to the audience, telling them how these problems came about. Anthony Bourdain was employed to make a stew analogy about the creation of these terrible financial products.

Selena Gomez, for some reason, was involved, along with a credentialed doctor of finance in order to lend some weight to that scene. Also, Margot Robbie was involved in speaking directly to the audience.

She was someone that I didn’t recognize when I watched the film, so I had to look her up, and her filmography made her appearance make more sense to me. She had been in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and in the Will Smith movie where he’s a grifter. I think that’s why she was chosen—she would appeal to people who those movies appealed to.

Katie: So actually we have a clip here of when Anthony Bourdain is explaining what a collateralized debt obligation is, or a CDO, as you hear referred to in the movie, so we’ll play that real quick.

[background noise]

Anthony Bourdain: I ordered my fish on Friday, which is the mortgage bond, so what am I going to do. Throw all of this unsold fish in the garbage, take the loss? No way. Whatever crappy levels of the bond I don’t sell, I throw into a seafood stew. It’s not old fish, it’s a whole new thing. That is a CDO.

Man 1: OK, here we go.

[background noise]

Craig: I’d actually really be curious to know if the stew analogy came first, or if Anthony Bourdain signed on as a random celebrity first, because it was a little bit jarring when it came up. It did a great job to tell the story, but I was kind of scratching my head like, “Why?”

Katie: Yeah, it did seem a little out of place that suddenly you jump into this restaurant environment, which is maybe what you mean, Craig, when you say it was kind of surprising. But I have to say, I think there’s something to what Adam McKay has done by employing these celebrities and simplifying this into terms that people can understand. As marketers, we talk a lot about the need to ground what we’re talking about in something that is familiar, something that people can relate to.

Craig: Yeah, absolutely.

Mike: I found it quite entertaining, just this break in the activity. I believe with Anthony Bourdain, out of the several that you mentioned, Craig, this one made the most sense to me. It felt the most applicable to the moment in the story, versus the bubble bath scene with Margot Robbie, and even the Selena Gomez one, I thought, was very odd. Like, I was more distracted by, “Why this celebrity here and now?” Then also with the person, or with…who was she with?

Katie: Dr. Thaler, an economist.

Mike: I thought that dynamic was much more distracting, because I don’t even remember now what principle they were explaining to me, whereas the fish stew stuck with me. I could imagine it, I didn’t really have to because he was using those objects, and it was… can’t we all relate to dining, and how the menu works? Plus, we’ve also all heard rumors about how the fresh fish gets reused over and over and over again. So I found it very interesting.

Craig: I know you two in particular are gambling fiends [laughter], so I did find it applicable to have the blackjack scene with Selena and with Dr. Thaler, to illustrate how multiple people were placing bets on the back of bets, and how that domino effect came about. Now it was fairly obvious to me that they needed Dr. Thaler there because Selena Gomez is an international pop star, and that’s all they had for her credentials there. They had practically a paragraph of the reasons that you should trust this scene under Dr. Thaler’s name when they introduced them.

Katie: Right. I liked that example as well, because I thought it did a good job illustrating the way people were betting on other people’s activities, but I think I probably have to agree with Mike in that of the vignettes, maybe it was the most distracting because there was a lot going on. Which I think is a good reminder to us as marketers that when you’re using examples to ground things, there is such a thing as taking that too far: Too many bells and whistles, too much distraction, where sometimes the analogy is lost.

Mike: What did you all think of Margot Robbie’s vignette?

Craig: I was personally a little bit offended as a viewer, because it was just so frank about why she was there. McKay decided to tell us to our faces that we were too dumb to understand that, and I can appreciate the vehicle, [but] I thought the tone was a little bit too much.

Katie: I actually—which is funny, because you might think that the female in the room here would be like, “What a misogynistic way to show a principle.”—but, you know, actually it didn’t bother me, but I recognized right up front what McKay was trying to do.

I can raise my hand willingly and say, “I have no idea what they’re talking about and I need somebody to explain it to me.” So to me, it felt like it was in the vein of the movie, and I didn’t feel insulted by it. I didn’t find that one particularly insightful, and to Craig’s point, she does pretty blatantly tell users to…

Craig: F‑off.

Katie: Yeah, so I get it, but for me it was more tongue in cheek than anything else.

Mike: Katie, did you know about the vignettes and the use of this before you saw the movie?

Katie: I didn’t, so I was actually pretty surprised. In fact I didn’t know a lot about the movie even going into it. I’m a pretty big movie fan, my husband and I go see a lot of movies, I dropped out of film school [laughter], but I hadn’t heard a lot about this. I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject, but what always perks my ears up is an Oscar nomination.

So I went and saw it, and even sitting in the theaters, I turned to my husband and said, “This is really cool way to explain an incredibly complex subject. Look around this theater—it is full of people who would never know anything about the housing bubble.”

Craig: It’s interesting, our clients ask us to use tactics like those every day as well, explaining the complicated techs and specs of what they’re trying to sell. For instance, what is a gig to a consumer who doesn’t speak that language on a daily basis? Or asked to translate that, or break down the fourth wall in the purchase journey, to let them know a gig is 400 high definition pictures. We need to frame it in a position that’s relatable to them.

Mike: Is there a purchase example that either of you have experienced where a fourth wall or breaking the fourth wall may have been handy?

Katie: Yeah, definitely for me. Mine is actually really recent. This weekend I went to go get a new cell phone, and I hadn’t gotten a new phone in years. I’ve had the same phone for about four years now. I’ve been grandfathered in on all of the old school, great wireless plans where I have unlimited everything and pay basically nothing. Come to find out, you can’t do that anymore, and you have to switch to a plan that allows you to upgrade your device all the time. Unfortunately, there is no clear way to even understand what that plan looks like, what you get out of it, how long it lasts, or how much it costs. So as I stood in a carrier’s store that I will not name, I just felt like I was living in a “Portlandia” skit.

[laughter]

Craig: My example’s a little bit weirder. I was shopping for acetone for a home project I was working on. There’s so many different versions, and each of the different brands describes the things that the solvent does in different hierarchies. So if it talks about cleaning metal first, does that mean this brand is the best for cleaning off metal? That would have been a nice time for a marketer to find a tactic to break the fourth wall and help me to make a comparison when it mattered. What about you?

Mike: Well, I’m wondering which celebrity you wanted to deliver that message.

[laughter]

Mike: Do you have one in mind?

Craig: Anthony Bourdain in a bubble bath.

[laughter]

Katie: I’m wondering what you needed acetone for, but…

[laughter]

Craig: That’s in our next podcast.

Katie: I was watching some of the extra features, some YouTube clips about “The Big Short,” looking at a couple of other reviews, just to see what other people thought. I stumbled across a Paramount featurette that shows a little bit of Adam McKay talking about the way he directed this movie. He says something in there that’s really fascinating to me, and we’re going to play this clip for you real quick.

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Adam McKay: There’s these moments throughout the movie where you have characters turn the camera, there’s moments where we just stop a scene and then go to someone to explain it. I’m just a big believer in you do what you need to do to tell the story.

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Katie: So, I thought this was really interesting—this was a really powerful statement for a director to come out and say, you know what? It doesn’t matter what it takes, it doesn’t matter if we have to break the fourth wall, we do what we need to do to break the story. What do you guys think of that comment and how it relates to how we help tech marketers every day?

Mike: What’s interesting about the world of marketing—which is one of the reasons that I love that industry and also like the technology industry—is the rules are changing constantly. Sometimes, if you’re going to represent a trailblazer, or someone who has created something that doesn’t have the context or hasn’t done something before, you have the license to break those rules and those expectations, and if you stick to the convention you may be underselling what it was meant to do to begin with.

So I appreciate his sentiment that sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I read a similar interview and he said the convention of moviemaking is show, don’t tell. He practically bragged that this time, he crushed those rules and threw them out the window, because it was necessary.

Craig: And clearly he did a good job of it; the film is nominated for several big awards, good luck to them. I think it is worth noting that there’s at least one YouTube explainer video specifically about the movie.

It begins by saying, “So a lot of you have seen the movie, and you’ve asked to have it explained.” So I guess it didn’t do 100 percent of the job of clearing it up, but it’s a very complex process. There’s an explainer video for the movie that makes sense of the book, that makes sense of the crash. I think for our next project, we should make an explainer video for that explainer video.

Katie: [laughs] I think what “The Big Short” did a good job of is knowing their audience. By and large this movie had good reviews, was well‑received by the Academy. Sure, there may be some explainer videos out there, but for the most part, I think the audience— and I’m including myself in this audience—I didn’t walk away from that movie understanding everything. I still probably can’t tell you what half of that stuff is, but it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what I wanted out of the experience.

So I think it’s a good reminder for us that every audience is different, every audience needs a different amount of information, or is looking for a different emotional experience, and that’s up for debate whether or not “The Big Short” nailed it. But based on reviews and a lot of people’s reactions, it seems that they did just enough to tell the story that people wanted to hear.

Craig: Mike, how did you walk out of the theater feeling?

Mike: I’m with Katie. I’m not sure I could go back or even care to explain the intricacies of what really became the acronym, the demonized acronym, of CDO. I understand by principle how it really grew to be a problem, and human greed as well as almost acceptable ignorance allowed this thing to go to unprecedented levels. It wasn’t on trust—it was, I think, in a large part on greed and laziness that allowed this thing to get to that level.

So I felt bad, just about business, about the lack of authenticity, I think, of that industry. I had a little bit of a stomachache. Even though I found it very well done, I found the devices that it used really made what I would consider a subject for a business book really entertaining to a variety of people, which is why perhaps, Craig, you felt like some of the vignettes kind of dumbed it down and threw it in your face.

Craig: Ah, yeah.

Mike: To me, that was one of the takeaways—“Know your audience,” because trying to help someone simplify, clarify, even humanize that information, although it worked, the way it was delivered…if it undermines or disrespects the integrity of that audience that they feel for themselves, then you probably were better off not doing it at all.

Katie: Right, instead of helping the brand or just not helping the brand, it hurts the brand. It hurts the product or service that you’re trying to sell. I think that’s a good point.

Mike: The other thing that occurred to me, thinking about this, it was a bit unfair because I went in to watch the movie with something to look for—based off, Katie, your insight—that there’s something here that reminds us of a strategy we try to employ every day. So I was constantly comparing it to this experience versus the experience of a marketer and trying to get someone to take information in.

I think it would have been more applicable if I was watching this movie at home, where I didn’t give this content two and a half hours of my undivided attention that was on a time axis that I was not in control of. So if—just like you are with a purchase, I can opt in and out of any kind of interface, especially with technology the way it is—I wonder if a learning worth considering is the fact that these fourth walls can be accessible on a consumer’s terms. Meaning, they are there at the right place, but I don’t have to watch Anthony Bourdain if I don’t want to.

Katie: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, because when people walk into a movie theater, they’ve purchased a ticket, and when’s the last time you walked out of a movie? You’re pretty much a captive audience because you’re sitting there and you’re going to finish it out.

Craig: I walked out of “Freddy Got Fingered.”

Mike: Yeah, I don’t walk out on movies the same way I walk out on books.

Katie: Oh, yeah.

Mike: It’s just kind of a different stubborn pride thing. At least this movie was worth it. I enjoyed it from start to finish.

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Katie: Well, I think that’s all the time we have for today. We’d love to hear what you thought of the movie and today’s episode of “Technically Human.” You can send us your thoughts by emailing us at technicallyhuman@ignitepartnership.com.

Mike: Ignite Partnership is the marketing agency for technology companies that want to understand and capitalize on complex buyer journeys. Ignite has brought life to tech since 2009. To find out more, visit IgnitePartnership.com.

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Katie: The movie clips you heard in today’s episode are from Fandango’s “Movie Clips Coming Soon” YouTube channel, and a Paramount movie featurette, and are copyrighted by their respective owners. You can find the links to those clips in the podcast transcript on our website at IgnitePartnership.com.