Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind. – Nassim Taleb, from Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
In November, 1978 an unheralded film was released; Faces of Death. The budget was a mere $450,000 and produced by a couple of Disney producers who took non de plumes as to not compromise their “Disney image”. Most of the segments are complete fabrications with only a few actual real scenes. Deconstructing fake video from real was not sophisticated in the 80s. Most actually thought people were sitting at a table eating monkey brains from a killed-at-the-table simian.
The film would lie in obscurity for years. I was in charge of marketing for our family home video business and we purchased the worldwide home video rights in 1983 for a paltry $10,000 advance versus a standard royalty. One of my duties was to write copy for the video box.
I was a young sales & marketing guy and strict adherence to truth was not high on my list of virtues. Harkening back to the days when the moniker “Banned in Boston” increased interest in anything that was forbidden, we slapped a bold banner on the front cover, “Banned in 46 Countries” (forgive me if I cannot recall the exact number we claimed).
We released the video in 1984 with mediocre sales at best. We sold only 1500 copies in the first six months. Then one day a Reuters reporter walked into his local video store in Michigan and asked the owner what he should rent. The owner told him the hottest video for the past 3 months was a film nobody ever heard of; Faces of Death.
The reporter was intrigued and rented the video. After viewing, he called our office and asked to speak to someone about this film. The call was routed to me. I also handled PR since we were a small company. The reporter told me how he came to rent the video. He was intrigued how and why this film could be made and distributed.
Owing to his diligence, one of the first questions he asked was in which countries FOD had been banned. Crap I thought! But this was before the Internet and I started rattling off Middle East countries that it would be difficult for him to verify. I have no usual flair for improvisation, but the “banned” nations emerged with ease: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Jordan and several others. Of course this was made up on the fly. I never thought anyone would ask us that question.
The reporter filed a wire story the next day that was picked up all over the world. The story went viral. This was before social media and “virality” was something novel back then. I was giving ten interviews a day. CBS News, ABC News, local stations, radio interviews, a multitude of newspapers and magazine writers came to our offices. We had to set up a buffet to feed visitors.
Something happened to sales. While we sold 1500 units in six months, suddenly sales ballooned and we were selling 1000 videos a day to distributors. We discovered the Holy Grail of what is now called “earned media“. Our campaign had become the fire and the media was the wind fanning the flame of sales.
But what was actually fueling this fire? I enlisted my uncle who founded the company to help field the media requests. Every night we would strategize what to say that would “fan the flames”. We decided to embrace the negative reactions and questions. Was FOD a “snuff film”? “What was motivating us to release such a disgusting video?” “Would we let our children watch such a video?”
We leaned into the questions and *admitted* that this might be the most disgusting film ever released but since death would come for all of us, chronicling the many faces of death was something suitable for home video and not television. We would point the media to the warning we placed on the box that nobody under 18 or “faint of heart” should view this film. More forbidden fruit if you will and sales continued to climb.
When my uncle and I would get personally attacked, which was often as our swarthy and ethnic appearance fit a common media narrative, we reminded the media that we did not spend a penny promoting the video and its skyrocketing sales were due entirely from media notoriety. This increased the media’s attacks since we told them THEY were more responsible for sales than we were. We did not create demand, the media did.
The more the media attacked us or the film, the more sales increased.
We soon approached the producers and bought the negative and all rights worldwide in perpetuity to what was to become a franchise…now royalty free. Six Faces of Death films were made. Over 1 million units sold and $50 million in wholesale flowed into the coffers of our small, independent home video company with zero marketing expenses. FOD was named by Entertainment Weekly one of the top 50 cult films of all time.
This is only the second time relaying this story in public. This is not so much a confession as it is a concrete example of antifragility in practice. Marketing indiscretions of youth have given way in favor of more authentic approaches. But the lessons of antifragility are timeless.
Jaffer Ali is a serial entrepreneur and currently the CEO of PulseTV, an e-commerce company. He recently started his ninth entrepreneurial adventure; TrySERA.com, a data company that identifies website visitors and allows marketers to re-market to them via email.