Author Talks: Walt Hickey explains how what we watch influences what we do

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Vanessa Burke chats with Walt Hickey about his book, You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything (Hachette Book Group, October 2023). Through eye-opening data, Hickey sweeps through film and pop culture history, revealing sometimes surprising truths about the impetus behind many of our thoughts, choices, and actions. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why this book in particular, and why now?

That’s a really good question. There were a lot of factors that made it only possible to write this book right now. I graduated college in 2012. At that point, data journalism was really just entering the mainstream. I entered the field at a really exciting time, and a lot of the work that I was doing, particularly when I was at FiveThirtyEight and in the time since, was about the intersection of pop culture and data journalism.

Only in the past ten years or so have we really had the resources available to do cool, in-depth stuff. I’m not just talking about data literacy and the demand for it. I’m also talking about the databases that we draw conclusions from, which are a fairly recent phenomenon. We’ve always had IMDb [the Internet Movie Database], but our ability to do data scraping, data analysis, and data integration has just been leaps and bounds ahead of what the technology was, even just recently.

At the same time, you see a renewed understanding of people’s relationship with media. The pandemic really surprised people, because when it took away so much of what they could spend their time doing, a lot of people turned to media. They did that in a way that had significantly outpaced what they’d done before. That shift caused people to really consider what they’re getting out of movies and television.

Is it more likely that film and culture influence society or vice versa?

It’s the question at the heart of a lot of this. What came first: the chicken or the egg? What came first: society or the culture that affects the society? What I keep coming back to in the book is that this thing is not a “chicken or the egg.” It’s an ouroboros. It is constantly updating, constantly consuming itself, constantly in relation to itself.

Banks really began to take pointers on what security mechanisms they needed in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, as bank robbery films became popular.

One of my favorite things to track over the course of the book is sitcoms. Comedies are inherently reflections of the very moment in which they’re made—always reflective of the social mores, the societal structures, and the interpersonal relationships that were paramount then. You can see the evolution of what an ideal American family can be over the course of American sitcoms’ history.

Workplaces are fun, because workplace comedies really reflect people’s experiences and their chance to blend different classes together, to really just show a slice of life. Take 30 Rock, for example. It was one of the most successful sitcoms of the past two decades. You have a woman who works in a dynamic media environment, and the show reflects what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace. Here’s what it’s like to have a blended workforce when it comes to different people with different politics, with different mentalities, and all that. The Office was also one of the biggest workforce comedies. Our sitcoms can be a way to understand what is really top of mind for a lot of us.

Besides careers and hobbies, how else do film and pop culture influence society?

There was a study that was conducted regarding on-screen diversity. I was talking to some folks, and they said, “Well, you have to look at this Hunger Games study.” What they found was that USA Archery saw an explosion in membership after the release of The Hunger Games. There was a significant increase in the number of young people taking up the sport. But what’s particularly unique about this phenomenon was that, against historical precedent, a disproportionate percentage of these people were women. The survey found that these women were trying to be like Katniss Everdeen.

There’s a chart in the book about the relationship between New Zealand tourism—from places such as Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and how recently the Lord of the Rings films came out. There’s a chart of baby names that were inspired by movies and television that is, to me, very shocking. There are thousands, tens of thousands of people—potentially over 100,000 in just this country—walking around with names that were probably planted in their parents’ heads or at least popularized by a film or a television show.

USA Archery saw an explosion in membership after the release of The Hunger Games. Against historical precedent, a disproportionate percentage of these people were women.

You have a film like 101 Dalmatians that will come out, and then within a year, Dalmatians are the eighth most popular dog in America. Last year, one of the highest-grossing films was Top Gun: Maverick. The first Top Gun was a huge moment for the American military when it came to getting its hardware on-screen and getting people interested in a career in the military after the Vietnam War.

You can see how people are affected by films in all sorts of different ways, big and small, from the dogs they adopt to the F-14 Tomcats they want to fly.

Knowing that crime escalates much less than public opinion thinks it does, would you say we also think what we watch?

Yes. One of my favorite studies tracked Gallup’s annual crime survey. It asked Americans going back to the late ’70s, “Do you think that crime is up this year, down this year, or the same this year?” And time and again, Americans think that crime is up. But the reality of the past three decades has been that, compared with the ’80s, year over year, crime is usually down. Violent crime is considerably down. You will have years where crime goes up, but the general point of view of your typical American is that every year is worse than the previous year. The data does not bear out this perspective.

Now, why is that the case? I’m interested in potentially crime TV having a link to that. We do have more Law & Orders today than we did ten years ago. Perhaps, that is inflating people’s perceptions of how many murders exactly go down in New York City in a given weekend.

People’s perceptions of crime tend to be a lot more informed by what they see on mass media distribution systems than by what is actually the case.

Nevertheless, a lot of it comes down to media and news consumption. Every night, networks have half an hour to fill with news, and whether crime is rather high or rather slim, they’re going to have some stories there.

People’s perceptions of crime tend to be a lot more informed by what they see on mass media distribution systems than by what is actually the case. In contrast, there have been some very significant but little-noticed public safety gains in the United States over the past three decades.

To what extent is business or the global economy affected by film and pop culture?

Pop culture and film are absolutely critical elements of the global economy. On so many different levels, our economy and our business life would be unrecognizable without the input of pop culture. Number one, it articulates geopolitical soft power. There’s this idea in geopolitics: hard power is, I have a lot of battleships, and if I want another country to do something, I can park a battleship in its harbor. And then all of a sudden, the conversation gets a lot easier. That’s very, very old style and doesn’t really happen anymore. If you look at geopolitics now, so much of it is done through soft power, which is when two countries, because they’re able to get a value alignment, want to do the same things together. One critical element of that alignment happens through movies and television. Another critical element of that is business. These things go hand in hand.

I have a chapter about countries that have done this really well. One of the first was Britain, after it saw the decline of its hard empire and the rise of its geopolitical soft power. All of a sudden, people were lining up to see James Bond movies, even though the British intelligence services hadn’t necessarily been on their side.

Japan is a very good illustration of just how the intersection of business and pop culture can mean so much for an economy. Japan is where a lot of the innovation happened when it came to the commercialization of pop culture, whether it was in the actual merchandise, the fashion element, or the ways that you can continue to get people interested in buying things around a piece of pop culture history for years and years. There’s a very important reason that one of the largest technology companies in Japan, Sony, also owns a movie studio.

There’s a lot of incentive to build bonds between countries through a cultural exchange. A recent adoptee of this method has been South Korea. It has been a very explicit government priority, in fact, to make Korean pop culture—whether it’s K-pop, films such as Parasite, K-dramas, or any of these individual forms of entertainment—international and to spread the culture widely, because it provides a really big boon.

If you want to understand how emerging technology and creativity can intersect in compelling ways, look no further than why Hollywood became Hollywood.

Why do you think people feel compelled to own products related to something they watched?

After [Netflix’s Korean thriller] Squid Game came out, even the shoes featured with the tracksuits in the show saw an increase in sales upward of 7,000 percent. We have to ask ourselves, why does this happen? What is the underlying effect responsible for that? It just speaks to something that movies and television can do that other media and other ways of reaching consumers can’t. With a film or a television show, you really do have empathy for the people in it that you don’t have for a commercial or just a basic advertisement or things like social media.

If you spend time with your friends, you become more like your friends. If you spend time watching Squid Game and really empathize with the plight of the people involved—seeing yourself in a few of them and seeing some of their foibles, but also their strengths and their resilience—then you might just want that sneaker at the end of it as well.

After the film Beethoven came out, demand for Saint Bernards increased substantially. This was shocking to me, because the entire concept of the film was, “Dang, this animal is rather difficult to keep under control and is not the most pleasant thing that I own.” Nevertheless, people wanted more of that dog. Part of it really does come down to empathy. It comes down to the fact that film and television are able to compel lots of different people to feel what their protagonists are feeling and see what they’re seeing and experience what they’re experiencing. You can see this time and again.

I am a millennial. I was fairly in the target demographic of Harry Potter when it came out. This franchise just has so much resilience, particularly in my generation. You have an entire amusement park that is catering toward a film series that is no longer produced, toward books that are no longer written. It is just such a surprising thing. You have to wonder, why is there so much here? You have a lot of people who spent a whole lot of time that was very important to them reading seven books that immersed them and compelled them in a way that they still yearn in some capacity for.

As a result, you can see that when you make a difference, whether it’s through a book series or a television show or a movie, that impact is the thing that will continue and persist long after everything else.

Is the societal influence of film and pop culture more positive or more negative?

A huge question that people ask about pop culture is, “How negative is it?” A lot of the time, you will see that people want to constrain screen time. They will say, “Oh, I’m trying to watch less television,” “Oh, I don’t want to. . . . That’s wasting your time, that’s frying your brain, that’s melting your mind,” all that kind of stuff.

A key concept of the book is that your time is important. You have a limited amount of it, and people spend a lot of it engaging with media. But my conclusion is not necessarily that it’s bad. After humans developed campfires, the next thing that they figured out was what stories to tell when they’re sitting around them. There’s a lot of inspiration that comes from these things that we will oftentimes deride as being just ephemera.

Through this medium, we can entertain and amuse ourselves but also tell stories that can resonate and potentially change our lives, that can give us perspectives of people whom we might never interact with. That can give us an understanding of how the world works and an understanding of and a level of empathy for those people. Film is a really cool piece of technology. It’s a really amazing thing.

Let’s be 100 percent clear. This is a business. This is an industry. It’s an industry because of what it does for people. The money is a reflection of just how important it is. If it wasn’t important to people, they wouldn’t spend as much as they do on it. They spend hundreds of dollars a month on this stuff to try to entertain themselves. It is an important part of their lives. A lot of the time, it has been neglected or derided or seen as a thing that wastes money or time. But this is oftentimes money very well spent.

What is a film or pop culture event you were personally affected by, and why?

I saw Jurassic Park, and I saw Jeff Goldblum playing Ian Malcolm as not just a mathematician, not just a guy who fundamentally understood something about this entire park that nobody else did, but as someone who eventually got it right. He’s not only the guy who’s doing all the bleeding-edge stuff, but he also embodies that excitement in a field that feels rather stagnant when you’re young.

He’s also somebody who’s suave and interesting and a fun person to look at, and he moves like a leopard around the park rather than like Beaker from The Muppet Show. That’s a cool thing. I saw a path open up in math after I saw the film, because it was very much a representation that not everything is just this kind of stereotype.

It fundamentally changed my perspective on what I can do. I’m in journalism now, but I majored in mathematics with a concentration in probability and statistics. Obviously, that dovetails pretty well with what I’m doing right now with data journalism. But that perspective from the film was definitely an important element of it.

We are always informed by the movies around us and the things that we see and the ambitions that we have. It is always very fun. I remember seeing [the biographical drama film] Spotlight when I was a very young journalist, and I said, “Man, it is so interesting that you can just work very hard at that kind of problem and actually get results.” A lot of the time, you can get a dose of inspiration through this kind of stuff. It can help center you and remind you why you do a thing.

There are a lot of exciting ways that pop culture can manifest. I’ve also found it can get you through some stuff, too. It can get you through periods of doubt and periods of, “Am I doing the right thing?” And then you can watch a film about somebody who maybe experienced something similar and found a way to persevere or found a way to change what they were doing and then went in a new direction.

I remember watching the Studio Ghibli movie The Wind Rises at a very important point in my late 20s, when I thought, “What does it mean to try to get good at something and put your best work out there in a complicated time?” That really was an inspiration. I would say that the movies find you at different points in your life. They will change over the course of your life. They will change in what they mean for you. That is such a fascinating thing about the medium that just speaks to the depth of effort and the depth of work that go into creating it.

Having this technology that exists, that can genuinely change your perspective, that can genuinely place your mind behind the eyes of somebody else—to understand a different person’s perspective and a different person’s world—is marvelous, and we should never lose sight of that.

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