Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What is Marvel doing so right?

If you look up the highest-grossing franchise, you will find the Marvel Cinematic Universe claiming the top spot. At the global box office, it has grossed more than $14.6 billion from the 18 films that have been released so far. Of course, this figure is only going to shoot up with the 14 other films that are currently in production. But what exactly has revived this once bankrupt brand of superhero films to make it so enticing for old and new audiences?

A part of this can be attributed to the fact that we receive a steady stream of films, meaning that the franchise receives a steady stream of sky-high profits in return. This year alone, Marvel are dropping three films, fulfilling their typical pattern of two to three releases a year. It is their envious business model that enables them to do this as they do not have to worry about making box office hits year-on-year, these are guaranteed thanks to the interconnected universe their comics created. Despite having assured success, Marvel continue to employ many influential techniques to both keep and draw people into their universe.

Female representation
This July will see the release of ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’. Astonishingly, this is the first Marvel film to feature the name of a female character in the title. Next spring, we will be seeing Captain Marvel hit the big screen, Marvel’s first female-led superhero film. Recently, plans for Black Widow getting her own movie have also been confirmed. In a cinematic universe that is not alien to using the ‘Smurfette Principle’, where one female stars alongside an otherwise all-male case (Pollitt, 1991), it seems that slowly but surely there is a movement being made towards increased female representation on the big screen. Iyengar and Kinder (1987) explain that when an issue (such as discussions around gender equality) is widely discussed in the media, individuals see this issue as being important and due to an availability heuristic, they tend to support those taking a strong stance on the matter. With Marvel making their stance on females in the film industry clear, they should anticipate further expansion in their audiences. This increase becomes apparent when looking at the Facebook statistics for Marvel in 2013 and in 2017. Back then, their females accounted for just under 25% of their fan base, they now make up just over half. Although this data is restricted to those who have Facebook accounts, it is evident that there has been an influence on their audiences.

Source: Brett 2013; Brett 2017

The characters Marvel introduced in the 1960s were thought of as a ‘new wave’ of superheroes and considered to be a lot more down-to-earth (Ecke & Haberkorn, 2010). Reflecting struggles during the civil rights movement, you have the X-Men who are feared by the public and face prejudice. Then there is the Hulk who can be misunderstood at times. You also have Peter Parker, an average teenager, who often finds that being “your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” gets in the way of life. Many of the struggles Marvel characters seem to face are reflected in everyday life in some way. This comes to the attention of audiences, and ultimately play to Marvel’s advantage as people generally like those who they share similarities with (Emswiller, Deaux, & Willits, 1971; Cialdini, 2007).

Jiang, Hoegg, Dahl and Chattopadhay (2009) investigated whether incidental similarities between a consumer and sales person affected the consumer’s attitude or intention to make a purchase. The graphs below demonstrate that when incidental similarities were present, attitudes towards the sales person were more positive and the intention to make a purchase was also greater. Those who felt a greater sense of social connectedness were affected more so than those who felt a lower sense of social connectedness. This suggests that if people feel that they share similarities with a Marvel character, the chances are they will buy into their respective films. This helps in explaining why The Avengers is the highest-grossing film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the film contains various protagonists, so the chances of people being enticed into viewing the film due to similarities is far higher than other films where the focus is on one protagonist.

Role models
A role model can be someone an individual has no contact with, yet they still have the ability to influence decisions and behaviours of the individual (Bandura, 1977). This is where superhero movies benefit more so than other film genres. The Marvel universe has established figurehead protagonists that have been around for over fifty years. In this time, generations of children, adolescents and adults have bought into these comics, and now movies. I am sure many have also identified particular superheroes as being their role model at some point too. This is probably truer in childhood, where many undoubtedly go through a ‘superhero phase’, where the phrase “when I grow up, I want to be just like (insert Marvel character name here)” is commonly heard. These are the people who will go on to see their role model when they feature on the big screen.

Image: Wikimiedia Commons

The idea of role models goes beyond fictional characters as it also applies to the cast of the films. Whilst Marvel feature new faces every now and then, such as Tom Holland in the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming, their current cast features many well-known and admired actors. To name a few, we see Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. These three actors alone have legions of fans across the globe, and amongst these fans many will perceive them as being role models. This is more than likely to have a substantial influence on an individual’s behaviour (Martin & Bush, 2000), and is the hook which will make them carry on buying into Marvel (for as long as their role models feature anyway - although by this point they would have committed to being fans of Marvel so they will probably stick around).

Marvel are at the top of their game, and they certainly won’t be disappearing anytime soon. I am certain that most, if not all of you, will continue to be roped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one way or another. So for now, I will leave you with the trailer for their biggest project yet, roping together the last 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and predicted to perform remarkably well at the box office, Avengers: Infinity Wars.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brett. (2013). Facebook fandom spotlight: Marvel comics [Blog Post]. Retrieved from:

Brett. (2017). Demo-graphics: The state of marvel comics [Blog Post]. Retrieved from:

Cialdini R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

Ecke, J., & Haberkorn, G. (2010). Comics as a nexus of cultures: Essays on the interplay of media, disciplines and international perspectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Emswiller, T., Deaux, K., & Willits, J. E. (1971). Similarity, sex, and requests for small favours. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1, 284-291.

Iyengar, S., & Kinder, D. R. (1987). News that matters: Television and American opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jiang, L., Hoegg, J., Dahl, D. W., & Chattopadhay, A. (2009). The persuasive role of incidental similarity on attitudes and purchase intentions in a sales context. Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 778-791.

Martin, C. A., & Bush, A. J. (2000). Do role models influence teenagers’ purchase intentions and behaviour? Journal of Consumer Marketing, 17, 441-4353.

Pollitt, K. (1991). Hers: The smurfette principle. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

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