Saving lives with showtunes

Fort Bragg is almost a byword for tough macho posturing, it’s home to the US army airborne and special forces divisions. It acts as the final preparation station for men about to go to war. It is maybe one of the last places that you would expect to find a tradition of musical theatre. And yet for over 20 years, from 1970 to the early 90’s there was always a musical show that was compulsory to attend.

The shows had a full time Director and crew that created lavish spectacles with sets built to rival broadway productions. They also included content that might jar in the context of a mainstream musical, testimonials to dead soldiers. But his is the key to the existence of the whole theatre, the reason to want to attract the soldiers attention.

The starting point of the whole venture was getting a message across in a way that would stick. In this case, the message was about wearing a safety belt. The army was increasingly concerned about deaths from reckless driving whilst soldiers were on-leave. They were accounting for 10 times more deaths than from accidents whilst on maneuvers. Getting soldiers to buckle up became a number one priority for Commanding General Carl Steiner.

His starting point was a compulsory lecture for all his men. But so much of their time is spent being talked at, it made no difference at all. The next step was to get a team to direct and project a safety film. Again, the familiarity of a theatre (and the opportunity for a bit of shut eye) meant equally poor results. So how do you get and then keep an audience's attention? Give them something they are less accustomed to seeing. In this case, it was showtunes on an army base.

Producing song and dance numbers where one would have expected a safety film or flipchart was a revolutionary approach. While it certainly made soldiers sit up and take notice, it wasn't the show tunes that kept their attention. After each tune, there would be a moving personal dialogue or film about a specific soldier who had lost their life, or been terribly injured. It was this jarring of emotions, that created the cognitive dissonance, causing the message to stick. After the first few shows, deaths from reckless driving went down by a third.

What might on the surface seem like an odd or unusual approach worked fantastically because of it's oddness. It was also way ahead of its time. This technique of music and tragedy, or comedy and tragedy has since been used to great effect by the likes of Band Aid and Comic Relief.

While most marketeers don't have the anything like the military budgets needed to recreate Busby Berkeley numbers or to pay star performers like Peter Kay or Kylie, they do have the ability to think differently about delivering a message. It's only by standing out and sticking in the mind that you get any chance to influence your audience.

General Steiner and had the luxury of a guaranteed audience, Band Aid & Comic Relief use stars to bring an audience, marketeers need to define an audience. Our approach is to think of new ways to reach that audience, ways that harness the power of digital rather than the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Further reading (and listening)

The story of the Fort Bragg musicals was featured in episode 549: Amateur Hour

of This Amercian Life.

Read more about how to get attention in Dan & Chip Heath's 'Made to Stick'.



Steve Lloyd