The Story Code Behind Van Damme’s Viral SplitsShare
Volvo's ad featuring JCVD's epic splits went viral. Why has more to do with story than celebrity. Creativity and story expert Jeffrey Davis explains.
You’ve likely heard and seen by now the Volvo ad that went viral as Jean-Claude Van Damme performs his “epic splits.”
But why did it go viral?
Maybe if we took a closer look at what happens to most of us emotionally as we experience the 72-second video from beginning to middle to end, we might find a surprising answer that could help any of us who make stories, videos, or other potentially captivating content.
Stay open. Let’s take a look.
A Curious Opening
00:00: It’s a brilliant opening. The mature man’s chiseled jawbones are familiar to action film and martial art film fans. His eyes closed, behind the man a rising sun peeks over a distant Spain horizon. With the frame just below his denim-clad chest, where the man with broad shoulders stands you’re not exactly sure, but parts of two large crate-like forms frame the man’s body, and apparently he’s moving slightly up and down.
Curiosity piqued. Mystery established.
00:03: And there’s the familiar Belgian accent voice-over that to American movie fans’ ears might sound like a benign Schwarzenegger:
“I’ve had my ups and downs, my fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds.”
Who hasn’t? But this guy? He’s had his ups and downs, too? In less than eight seconds, my heart is in. Empathy established.
00:08: Like the rising sun, the man’s eyes slowly open, and the voice-over continues:
“That’s what made me who I am today.”
A storyline is established.
A Backstory of Strong Legs
He’s right. He’s had a compelling quest.
When this man was a boy, his father worried about his son’s frailty and interests. The skinny bespectacled kid loved to listen to classical music and draw. His father took his son to the Centre National de Karate in Belgiums and put him in the hands of the renowned trainer Claude Goetz.
Goetz recognized something in the small twelve-year-old: fierce determination.
Jean-Claude Van Varenberg started regular bodybuilding training for karate competitions and, later, for kickboxing, and as a musically sensitive teenager, he took ballet to increase his flexibility.
He would become feared for his strong legs.
Years later, he transferred his determination to get into American movies, moved to Los Angeles, and on a fateful night got a film director’s attention when the man now known as Jean-Claude Van-Damme whipped his body around 360 degrees and seized his foot inches from the director’s face. That move landed him a break-through part.
JCVD, as fans call him, showed his stuff in a series of box office hits in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but as the voice-over implies, he also had years of playing parts in flops.
An Uplifting Horizon
But that horizon is behind him now.
00:13: “Now I stand here before you. What you see is a body crafted to perfection. A pair of legs engineered to defy the laws of physics. And a mindset to master the most epic of splits.”
Theme established – mastery and excellence.
00:30: Now we see where he stands – each foot rests ostensibly on the rearview mirror of a large Volvo GlobeTrotter truck while each truck drives in synch backwards. Music rises as the music-loving JCVD stands poised, the Vitruvian force between earth and sky.
We’ve traveled from Mystery to Surprising Revelation.
And the clincher:
00:42: The two trucks, players in the visual ballet, continue driving backwards and elegantly glide apart until JCVD’s notorious legs stretch out parallel to the distant horizon.
He indeed masters the most epic of splits.
For the next thirty seconds viewers are treated to a visual and auditory ballet of Wonder, Admiration, and Awe.
Wired for Wonder
There you have the makings not just of viral content but of viral experience architecture -
This Tracking Wonder Arc™ contains several of the Faces of Wonder, the core of Contagious Story, the secret to what makes a lot of content go viral.
Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College Jonathan Gottschall ably argues that, “Story is the glue of human social life – defining groups and holding them together. We live in Neverland because we can’t not live in Neverland. Neverland is our nature. We are the storytelling animal.”
And what might be happening in the human brain while we watch this Volvo ad? Ask Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University. In a series of studies, Zak and his team show that there may be a universal story structure that elicits both distress-based cortisol in the audience and empathy-based oxytocin. He calls oxytocin the Moral Molecule: the Source of Love and Prosperity. Oxytocin bonds us and connects us to strangers – be they real or virtual.
But awe? Dacher Keltner has been tracking wonder and awe for several years. Author of Born to Be Good and founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, Keltner argues that our experiences of awe elicit what he calls “the love hormone,” oxytocin.
But the viral part?
All Van Damme Ads Not Being Equal
The ever-quirky web hosting company GoDaddy roped in Van Damme earlier in 2013 for a series of “GoDaddy Presents” ads. Each ad placed Van Damme in goofy situations, inevitably showing off his splits and physical prowess.
By one count, The Florist ad reached over 575,000 views. The Baker fared better with over 2,600,000 views.
And the Volvo ad? In the first six days, over 30,700,000 views.
In part, the difference has to do with intent. The video director, Andreas Nilsson said in a recent Wall Street Journal feature by reporter Barbara Chai that Van Damme is “a pop cultural icon that I have had in my life since I was a kid. The spots he has been in before have looked down on him, in my opinion. I was looking up, in celebration.”
In admiration and elevation.
Content creators and creative directors, pay attention: Quirky ads, content, films that elicit humor do get attention. But not at the same level as do content and ads that elicit awe.
Ask Jonah Berger, the James G. Campbell Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania. In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger describes how his team mined and categorized New York Times articles and blogs to decipher what elicited emotion most consistently went viral. His discovery?
But I would suggest this: To elicit awe is hard-earned. No content creator, novelist, artist, or creative director can aim to elicit awe directly simply by trying to “express it.” Viral content does not express awe.
An artist and content creator have to know enough about aesthetic design and care enough to give an audience an experience of awe. That in a little over 60 seconds, we went on a journey from mystery to empathy to surprise to awe is part of the viral story code.
For Content Creators, Brand Creators, & Creative Directors:
Know your or your brand’s creative daimon. A creative daimon is the brand’s or founder’s or creator’s original force to captivate and elevate an audience. Volvo is all about excellence and mastery. Their daimon is driven by excellence. That’s why anyone who’s drawn to Volvo is driven to drive a Volvo. They want excellence. GoDaddy, obviously, isn’t. Nor is its founder. So it would be odd for GoDaddy to try to pull off something like Volvo did. Still, the best comedies can shape surprising moments that elicit elevating emotions related to wonder such as admiration, awe, and astonishment at life. So, if GoDaddy really wants their videos to go viral, they’re going to have to do more than surprise us with goofiness. They’ll need to figure out ways to move us from laughter to astonishment.
Surprise yourself. If you’re creating content, trip yourself out of your routine ways of approaching content. What emotions do you want your audience to experience? How can you design an experience with your ideas and stories that takes them on an emotional arc?
Learn Story and Experience Architecture. Everyone’s abuzz about all-things story. Why? Story is how we human beings make sense of and actually make a difference in this world. There are arcs to learn. And arcs are all about design emotional experiences the way a master architect designs buildings that move us emotionally.
Scale your own production. You may not have Volvo’s resources. Still, a skilled videographer can execute your ideas far better than your DIY approach and deliver a more memorable, gratifying experience for your audience. Consider, given your limited resources, how can design a moving experience – in less than five minutes! – for your audience.
Your content might not go viral, but in the long run, your audiences will be better off for it. And in the long run virtue might win out over virality.
Note: This article originally appeared as "The Surprising Reason Why Jean-Claude Van Damme's Splits Went Viral" at trackingwonder.com on November 20, 2013.