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"You Wouldn't Steal A Movie" Advert May Have Led To More People Stealing Movies

Turns out you would steal a movie.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockAug 3 2022, 16:19 UTC
handcuffs on a laptop, ready to arrest you for piracy
Turns out you would steal a movie. Image credit: Burdun Iliya/shutterstock.com

An infamous early 2000s anti-piracy campaign may have actually increased piracy, a new study has claimed. If you bought and watched movies legally in 2004-2007, you will be well aware of the "You Wouldn't Steal a Car" anti-piracy campaign videos. One of the benefits of pirating movies, in fact, was you didn't have to see the irritating piracy warnings.

For the uninitiated, the advert listed a number of crimes and attempted to equate them with downloading a film, whilst also attempting to make downloading a film look as dramatic as the other listed crimes.

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"You wouldn't steal a car," the ad begins. "You wouldn't steal a handbag. You wouldn't steal a television. You wouldn't steal a movie. Downloading pirated films is stealing, stealing is against the law. PIRACY. IT'S A CRIME."

The ads have been widely parodied, including in an IT Crowd episode that included the lines "You wouldn't steal a baby. You wouldn't shoot a policeman and then steal his helmet. You wouldn't go to the toilet in his helmet and then send it to the policeman's grieving widow. And then steal it again!"

Was the ad the smartest campaign out there? No. But was the ad effective at preventing what it was aiming to prevent? Also no.

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According to the new study published in The Information Society, by lumping in stronger arguments with weaker ones, this campaign and others like it dilute their own message. 

"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 authors wrote. "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."

This and other piracy messages may actually encourage people to pirate films, TV, and music. What's more, by drawing attention to the fact that a lot of people pirate films, adverts against piracy may actually be indicating that it is socially normal to do so.

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"In a field experiment, Cialdini (2003) found that messages and signs directed at discouraging theft, but informing visitors of the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, that many visitors were stealing small pieces of petrified wood, inadvertently increased the theft rate in comparison to the control situation," the authors cite.

"Informing directly or indirectly individuals that many people pirate is counterproductive and encourages piracy by driving the targeted individuals to behave similarly."

The study also critiqued campaigns that use statistics – for example, how much piracy costs the industry – to get their point across.

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"Due to human biases, it is now established, people will disproportionally help a well-identified victim more than statistical victims," the authors wrote. "In short, emphasizing statistical victims of piracy numbs – dry statistics fail to spark emotion and motivate action."

However, they also warn against using identifiable victims of piracy, given that – in this instance – that includes quite well-off movie stars.

"For instance, Indian anti-piracy videos in 2018 concluded with the slogan 'illegal downloading or streaming movies is stealing!! Stealing is against the law'. 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."

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"This can offer to pirates a moral justification: they only steal the rich to 'feed the poor', a form of 'Robin Hood effect' that makes even more sense with some cultural or sport-related goods."

One example of how to counteract this, they write, would be to donate a portion of the movie's profits to charity in order to make victims more relatable, or to highlight more relatable victims of piracy than multi-millionaires.


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