Virtual Reality, Empathy and the New Age of Storytelling

June 23, 2016

Storytelling is a concept explored in detail during the sessions at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. On stage at the festival, Anderson Cooper, Anthony Bourdain, and Molly DeWolf Swenson explored how each story is unique and how technology continues to push the boundaries of how we can tell stories and create empathy.

Embrace Uncertainty

In a seminar at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Anderson Cooper interviewed Anthony Bourdain on where he gets his creative inspiration, and the conversation quickly pivoted to a focus on storytelling. Shouldn’t have been too much of a shock — telling stories is exactly what both Bourdain and Cooper do for a living.

Storytelling is the greatest privilege in the world. — Anderson Cooper  

Bourdain says for his TV series, “Parts Unknown,” he avoids the series style — where the show has a predictable story arc and standard film production. Instead, embracing the “unknown” part of the show’s title, he treats each episode as its own unique film. Bourdain says he thinks of himself not as a journalist but as an essayist. 

As content marketers we often default to the creating content that has the same look and feel, to ensure that it’s recognizable and resembles the content that preceded it. But clinging to a specific format can make our content predictable, and remarkable creative or great storytelling is rarely predictable. Bourdain’s lesson for content marketers: Allow the story drive the creative instead of pushing content into a predefined box where creativity all too often goes to die.

Never compromise. If I'm not satisfying some innate curiosity in my work, then there are better things I should be doing with my time. — Anthony Bourdain

How Virtual Reality Can Boost Empathy

Ryot CMO, Molly DeWolf Swenson, made the case that we may be in the middle of a wild digital media transformation with the rise of virtual reality. The upcoming shift from linear to spatial media, similar to the shift from silent films to talkies, may one day be milestone looked back upon for centuries after, she said. 

In a Cannes seminar titled, “360: Spherical Storytelling in a World of Flatties,” Swenson told the story of Ryot, an immersive media company recently acquired by Huffington Post. Four years ago Ryot set out to create a news site where every article had a call to action — donate to the relief fund, join the volunteer effort. About two years ago, the company adopted virtual reality as a major part of their coverage strategy. Ryot quickly discovered that VR content outperformed, in a major way, the rest of their traditional coverage. So much so that they launched an arm of Ryot to help brands implement VR into their media strategy.

In producing one film, Ryot partnered with a non-profit to shine a light on solitary confinement in the United States. Ryot produced a short virtual reality film that places the viewer firsthand in the place of an inmate in solitary confinement. At the end of the film the narrator says, “In a few seconds you will take off the headset and return to your life. Imagine if that was not an option.”

At the Tribeca Film Festival, they debuted the film in an effort to drive signatures for a petition to ban solitary confinement. Signatures filled the petition in a hurry. In part because this VR production, President Obama recently banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.

This VR film provides proof that experience drives empathy. Would a non-VR experience generate the same level of empathy from film festival attendees? How can we as marketers use VR to tell our own stories, or those of our customers?

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