Do animal-centered films like The Lion King, Free Willy, and Madagascar help or harm their furry (or slippery) leads?
While articles in the past have suggested the latter, the claims are often baseless, say researchers at the University of Oxford, UK. In fact, according to their research, published in the journal Ambio, the opposite is true – movies can spark curiosity in film audiences that encourages them to seek out new information on the animals they star.
The "Nemo effect" centers around the idea that films can create a demand for a particular animal. It is so-called because of rumors that Finding Nemo led to a surge in purchases of clownfish that negatively affected the species and their environment.
Indeed, a 2017 article on the phenomenon claimed that "the perceived impact on these species, driven by popular media with an emotive but scientifically uninformed approach to conserving coral reef ecosystems, can be more damaging to the cause of conservation than helpful."
Finding Nemo might be its namesake, but there are countless other examples. Think: Zootopia (which supposedly created a demand for pet fennec foxes), Harry Potter (the same but for owls), and – of course – Finding Nemo's sequel, Finding Dory. Not even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles nor Jurassic Park can escape these allegations.
This is despite the fact that they are entirely baseless, with supporting studies showing that there is no hard evidence to back them up. What's more, the evidence that is available suggests that going to see animal-led films such as these inspires people to learn more about the species the characters are based on – particularly when those species are lesser-known, as is the case in Finding Nemo and Zootopia.
"My research looks at demand for wildlife in multiple contexts," lead author Diogo Veríssimo, from the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, said in a statement.
"My experience is that human behavior is hard to influence, particularly at scale and it seemed unlikely that movies like Finding Nemo, Finding Dory and the Harry Potter series indeed generated spikes in demand for the species they feature."
He believes the "Nemo effect" is a "compelling" phenomenon because it offers a clear link that is logical and persuasive. Yet, when he and his team analyzed online search patterns via Google Trends, fish purchase data via one of the US's largest importers of ornamental fish, and visitation data from 20 aquariums based in the US before and after the release of Finding Dory, they found little to suggest the film had any impact on fish sales.
While global searches for blue tang fish (Dory) increased in the two to three weeks after the film's premiere, there was no significant evidence to suggest US-imports of the fish increased or that the number of people visiting aquariums was any higher. Yet, searches for blue tang fish more than doubled (2.1 times the frequency) in the week after the film's release.
This, he says, suggests cinematic influence is limited – at least as far as the large-scale buying of animals is concerned. While the research is limited to one film (Finding Dory) and one animal (clownfish), it suggests films are more likely to encourage learning than buying.
"There is, however, a clear effect in terms of information-seeking which means that the media does play an important role in making wildlife and nature conservation more salient," Veríssimo added. "This is particularly the case for animation movies which are viewed by a much more diverse group of people than, for example, nature documentaries."