Barbenheimer was a cultural moment and a future Harvard Business School case study.
According to AMC Theatres, more than 40,000 people purchased tickets to the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” films on the films’ shared opening day without any incentive by either production studio. If you had a Venn Diagram to represent the shared values of each film, the circles would not come close to intersection. One film was clever, poignant, and funny; the other was historical, damning, and extraordinarily sad. So what was the driver of such an odd cultural moment of consumption? With the help of Carl Jung and an understanding of the previous months of cultural moments, one may begin to understand how this happened and why it will happen more often.
Advertising can influence the sale, content can influence the sale, but a cultural moment? I believe that it can shift the conversation from influence to something more persuasive than mere influence alone. Shared joy is more moving than influence and may be the greatest precursor to consumer activity. Five recent events stand up this belief.
Prime Day, Taylor Swift, Mattel’s Barbie, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Yellowstone’s John Dutton share a place in the American psyche and one particular commonality. On any given day, we are inundated with streaming options, endless choices of what to consume against the backdrop of a uniquely American plague of loneliness. But rarely are we presented with events.
The American consumer of the 21st century is inundated with choices; it’s more rare than ever for shared joy to find its way into one’s daily agenda. An ever-expanding universe of streaming options, blogs, Youtube videos, and social media interactions have led to a veritable bombardment of potential entertainment but fewer events. Yet, amidst this avalanche of choice, what truly captures the public’s attention, and ultimately their purchasing power, are not the standalone options, but rather the shared experiences of consuming events. These include cultural phenomena such as Amazon Prime Day, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the concurrent release of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” (Barbenheimer), and even the finale of the television series “Yellowstone”.
In July 2023, we gave our nine year old daughter a choice for her ninth birthday: Taylor Swift tickets for Cincinnati, Ohio or a visit to Disneyland. She chose Disneyland and saved her parents thousands of dollars (Swift resale prices at this point passed $1,800 / ticket with fees).
The Eras Tour is predicted to become the highest-grossing global tour in history, with potential earnings over $520 million. Swift’s work during the pandemic, including the release of multiple albums, energized her fanbase and led to a surge in interest in her tour. And her rerecording of her earlier albums, a move to reclaim her master recordings, widely embraced by her fans, contributed to her rising popularity and influence. She built a consensus around her music catalogue and then leveraged this shaped public opinion into a cultural moment.
Edward Bernays, often referred to as the father of public relations, emphasized in his work “Crystallizing Public Opinion” the importance of shared sentiment in shaping public opinion. These five significant media events of the first half of 2023 perfectly crystallize Bernays’ concept, demonstrating how shared joy in consumption can drive consumerism and / or public movement.
“People are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions,” Bernays once wrote in “Propaganda.”
This quote alludes to the powerful yet often unconscious impact of shared joy in consumption. People are driven to participate in events like Amazon Prime Day or to watch movies like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” often without realizing the powerful psychological forces at play.
Shared joy is a powerful driver of consumption, tapping into the human need for connection and communal experience. When people go to a Taylor Swift concert, tune in for a World Cup match, or anticipate the finale of a beloved TV series like “Yellowstone”, they’re not just engaging with the content; they’re becoming part of a collective moment, a shared cultural experience that transcends the individual act of consumption. This shared joy in consumption is a psychological phenomenon that creates a sense of community, validates individual tastes, and generates a feeling of participation in a broader social narrative.
Take the Barbenheimer phenomenon. Neither of these films, alone, were indifferent in their promotion of the respective projects. Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” began its brilliant marketing campaign in the summer of 2022.
A year out from release the marketing effort kicked off with the release of a poster that also confirmed the eventual in-theater date. That poster is pretty simple but effective, showing the silhouette of a man (presumably Oppenheimer) standing amid the billowing clouds of a nuclear explosion. Nolan’s name is prominently displayed at the top of the one-sheet, an indication of what Universal feels will be a big factor in attracting audiences. (Cinematic Slant)
And the marketing strategy behind Mattel’s Barbie was nothing less than extravagant.
Barbie’s opening weekend was $337M. That’s nearly 2x Oppenheimer’s $174M.
Warner Brother’s insane ”Operation Barbie Summer” is a big part of that success.
These are 50 of the team’s most amazing marketing stunts:
1. 3D ad in front of Burj Khalifapic.twitter.com/MJAUVSGSa5
— Aakash Gupta 🚀 Product Growth Guy (@aakashg0) July 25, 2023
And together, they amplified one another while highlighting the desire for more “moments” and less entertainment. Entertainment can present a communal moment but not every communal moment is entertainment, for the record. Moments like Barbenheimer present opportunities for communal participation and excitement, as consumers not only look forward to the experience but also enjoy the build-up, discussion, and sense of belonging that come with these events. This anticipation and shared excitement foster a deeper level of engagement, leading to significant boosts in consumption.
Bernays noted that people are more likely to act on their desires and impulses when they perceive that their opinions and actions are shared by a group. This principle underpins these media events. The energy and excitement generated by shared joy in consumption transform them into significant cultural moments, driving sales not just in media consumption but also in related retail areas. This is a hope that Mattel is reliant upon.
The resurgent interest in Barbie offers a boon for Mattel. As fans flock to theaters, shared nostalgia and renewed attention spur an increase in Barbie doll sales, demonstrating the power of media events to drive retail consumption. Our 15 year old didn’t drag her parents to the film, we suggested it to her. She can take credit for making us wear pink, however; arriving at the theater, we noticed that we were far from the only ones.
And consider the synergistic relationship between the Women’s World Cup and Nike’s promotion of the event. The collective excitement surrounding the tournament fuels interest in the sport, thereby boosting the demand for related merchandise. Nike, understanding this dynamic, capitalizes on the heightened attention, promoting its brand and products in conjunction with the event, further driving sales.
The Amazon Prime Day phenomenon provides another compelling example. What began as a sales event within Amazon’s platform has expanded into a broader eCommerce event, with other brands and retailer offering discounts tied to Prime Day. We discussed this in tremendous detail here. This shared anticipation and excitement around the event extend beyond Amazon, driving increased sales across the retail sector.
While the vast array of streaming options and online shopping opportunities offer myriad choices for the modern consumer, it’s clear that what truly captivates and drives consumption are shared experiences. These events offer a sense of community and shared joy that not only drives media consumption but also boosts retail sales.
From Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour to the Barbenheimer phenomenon, from the adrenaline of the Women’s World Cup to the captivating narrative of “Yellowstone,” these media events exemplify the profound impact of shared joy in consumption. By tapping into the powerful psychology of communal experience, these events become cultural touchstones that drive consumer behavior and shape public opinion, perfectly crystallizing the theories of Edward Bernays in the modern world of media and retail.
As we move forward, businesses and media entities must recognize and harness the power of these shared experiences in the post-broadcast era. The future of consumerism lies not just in the sheer quantity of options, but more importantly, in the quality of shared experiences that inspire joy and foster a sense of community.
The landscape of consumerism has evolved. The public’s affinity towards shared experiences, as evidenced by the success of Amazon Prime Day and others mentioned is a testament to the potent psychological impact of shared joy in consumption.
Bernays was the first to shed light on how collective sentiment can stimulate consumption. By creating a sense of anticipation, involvement, and community, these events foster an environment conducive to consumer spending. Indeed, these five events were not just isolated media spectacles but crucial catalysts for commercial activity, demonstrating the immense potential of shared joy in consumption. As businesses and media entities continue to innovate and adapt to consumer behavior, they must take heed of this powerful principle. The future of consumption lies not in the plethora of choices alone but, more importantly, in the collective experiences that bind us all in shared anticipation, excitement, and joy. The celebration of these shared experiences is what truly propels the engine of modern consumerism. Variety Magazine explained:
The cultural craze of “Barbenheimer,” complete with double features of the seemingly different blockbusters with matching release dates, helped to fuel the biggest collective weekend at the box office since the pandemic. More impressively, the box office powered to its fourth-biggest weekend in history with over $300 million industry wide.
Thus, to quote Jeff Goldstein, President of Domestic Distribution at Warner Bros, in reference to the success of “Barbie,” the phenomenon of shared joy in consumption can be summed up: “This historic result reflects the intense heat, interest and enthusiasm for Barbie. This doll will indeed have long long legs.” The film’s influence, reach, and impact on consumer behavior will indeed endure and continue to shape the landscape of global consumerism. And for years to come, studios will attempt to duplicate the moment shared between the father of the atom bomb and Ruth Handler’s 1959 invention for America’s little girls.
These two minds of the last American midcentury, essential in their own ways, met in 2023 to change the course of an embattled film industry (during a difficult time for its many workers). The second order effects of Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan’s directorial works provided the grounds to analyze how the two inventors-turned-media IP accomplished what they did – both on screen and off. “Barbie” marked the biggest opening weekend of 2023 and the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman. The performance of both films helped contribute to one of the top four largest box office weekends in history, earning over $300 million collectively.
The Swift lyrics almost write themselves.
By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams