An infamous anti-piracy ad from 2004 tried to convince us all that downloading a pirated movie is no different than stealing a car. We’ve all seen it, but according to a new study published in The Information Society, we were not convinced. In fact, the study found that by hugely overstating the negative impact of piracy, the ad may have caused people to pirate even more.
As first reported by TorrentFreak, the study, “Doing more with less: Behavioral insights for anti-piracy messages,” took particular aim at a 2004 public service announcement created by the film industry. The study is a critique of the entertainment industry’s attempts to curb piracy viewed through the lens of behavioral economics. It asks how movie, music, and TV studios could have spent so much money on a campaign and failed so spectacularly.
The biggest reason is that pirates don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. “Information technology seems to facilitate the moral disengagement of infringers, who do not perceive themselves as thieves,” the study said. “For instance, the terms used by infringers frequently feature a form of euphemistic labeling (e.g., “file sharing”, “fighting the system”) and some pirates rationalize that unlike common theft, they do not deprive the owner of the copyrighted properly.”
According to the study, public anti-piracy campaigns fail because, rather than curb this behavior, they’ve encouraged it. One of the biggest problems that they tend to overstate the nature of the crime being committed and the losses suffered by the entertainment industry.
The 2004 anti-piracy ad that compares stealing a car to downloading a movie is over the top. It looks like a throwback to 1990s anti drug commercials and opens with the ominous lines “You wouldn’t steal a car.” Comparing the loss of a price of a movie ticket to grand theft auto didn’t play and the ad became an instant meme in the early days of the internet. It became so famous that it was parodied in more mainstream spaces like the British sitcom The IT Crowd.
“The most striking example might be the (in)famous ‘You would not steal a car’ awareness video aired in cinemas and on DVDs worldwide during the 2000s,” the paper said. “It compared downloading a movie to various forms of stealing, including reasonably relevant ones (stealing a DVD in a store) and somewhat absurd others (stealing handbags, TVs, cars), which diluted down the message.”
The study also called out attempts to make the piracy personal—highlighting the loss of revenue to individual people in the movie industry. It’s true that films and TV shows are made by thousands of people, many of them working wild hours for little play. But often the film studios picked the wrong mouthpieces for this tactic.
In India, a series of anti-piracy PSA starred the rich and famous. “All videos starred well-known actors, whose net worth is estimated to be $22–$400 million dollars, in a country where the annual per capita income is a bit less than $2,000,” the study said. “This can offer to pirates a moral justification: they only steal [from] the rich to ‘feed the poor’, a form of ‘Robin Hood effect’ that makes even more sense with some cultural or sport-related goods.”
Another problem is what the study identifies as “the social proof lever.” Anti-piracy ads often focus on how pervasive the problem is. “Given that individuals tend to conform to perceived social norms, they can be leveraged to nudge people toward a given behavior. Social norms have been successfully used as behavioral levers in diverse fields, such as wearing seatbelts, encouraging charitable donations, and energy savings,” the paper said.
But anti-piracy campaigns make piracy seem like the social norm. If everyone is doing it, the logic goes, it probably isn’t that bad. “Informing directly or indirectly individuals that many people pirate is counterproductive and encourages piracy by driving the targeted individuals to behave similarly,” the study said. “These messages provide to the would-be pirates the needed rationalization by emphasizing that ‘everyone is doing it.”
The study had one last piece of advice for movie studios: stop airing anti-piracy ads in the theater. “These messages are frequently edited out by pirates before being redistributed through the internet, the study said. “Consequently, individuals who see the message are paying users…displaying descriptive information about how widespread piracy is to paying users is ill-advised.”
Internet piracy isn’t going away and the reasons people pirate are complicated. The pandemic and the Balkanization of streaming services have led to a massive surge in piracy. But it’s hard to know how bad the problem is because repeated studies have shown that the biggest pirates tend to be super users who are already spending a lot of money on legal content.