What Depression-Era Movies Can Teach Recruiters about Hiring Hooks

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Want to hook and sell candidates on the job you’re dangling?

Then, watch block-buster 1930s Depression-era movies, such as “Grapes of Wrath”, “Public Enemy” or “Top Hat” for how-to tips.

No, the valuable lessons won’t be about selling “escapism” or about how to capitalize on people’s economic fears and despair.

More instructive than those approaches and hooks are other psychological “payoffs” those movies afforded movie-goers back then—payoffs that required skillful business, social and psychological Hollywood engineering, beyond merely lucky planning. Whatever the tricks were, they did the trick–namely, they hooked audiences and filled seats–big time, at least for a while.

On one calculation, the equivalent of more than half of the entire U.S. population of about 125 million went to see a movie at least once a week during the depths and despair of the Great Depression of the early 1930s.

That’s some serious drawing power—power based on various enticements that include some psychological lures and lessons that, as will be shown below, are available to a recruiter bent on enticing a favored candidate, but which must be properly applied.

Really Big Hauling Power

Here are that era’s box-office draw numbers and a cautionary myth-busting fact:

Average Weekly Movie Attendance [in a population of about 125 million]

—in 1927: 57 million
—in 1930: 90 million
—in 1931: 80 million
—in 1932: 60 million
—in 1933: 50 million

Now the myth buster: “Contrary to some popular mythology, the film industry was not ‘Depression-Proof’ and suffered a steep decline along with the fortunes of the nation as a whole. Cinema attendances soared after the 1927 introduction of ‘talkies’ (movies with full sound). But weekly viewership peaked at 90 million tickets in 1930, then declined by more than a third by 1933”. [Source: schmoop.com]

However, despite hard times and empty pockets, tens of millions still went to the movies because there was “something in it” for them, something more than the novelty of talkies, discounts, door prizes and escapism. That “something” is naturally assumed to have been, or at least to have included, “escape” as the incentive and payoff.

Of course that’s right. But what a recruiter can learn from those movies and use to attract candidates—that “something extra”—has nothing to do with escape.

The close analysis to follow suggests that, indeed, there was something much more useful than mere escape to be gained—something that careful viewing of those Depression-era movies and their psychology can reveal.

It is, I shall argue, also something that can be of use to recruiters trying to entice job candidates as surely as that era’s flicks enticed eager audiences.

The Enticement of the “Vicarious Pleasure” of Identification—Does It Work in Movies or Recruiting?

It’s 1933, in the Depression and drought-stricken dust-bowl heartland of the U.S.A.

Hey, anybody want to go see an upbeat musical about the rich, successful, well-fed, elegantly dressed top-hat-and-cane crowd in no need of a job, leading glamorous lives at catered, confetti-strewn big-band dinner-dance parties or tap dancing and sailing away to sip champagne on yachts moored at Marseilles? 

No, don’t ask those same lucky people. Why would they want to?

There’s no “vicarious thrill” or element of fantasy in that. Been there; done, are doing, have done and will continue to do that. So the have’s are unlikely to go to a movie for the purpose or with the outcome of “identification” with themselves.

  • Translation into recruiting:  Don’t try to sell the candidate on a job that [s]he already has—especially when head-hunting talent. But, also don’t try that with a candidate who displays ambition and a desire for advancement. Offering that type only something familiar and already accomplished is likely to flop as much as trying to sell Bill Gates a ticket to any Steve Jobs biopic just so he can experience the thrill of vicarious Silicon Valley big-scale success.

So, how about poor, starving jobless people in old threadbare winter coats leading wretched lives—in the middle of an economic depression that’s relentlessly gathering momentum like a storm that won’t quit?

Theoretically speaking, they shouldn’t want to watch that riches-to-riches movie either—since that would only be an exercise in frustration and a painful reminder of how miserable their lives are by comparison and in fact, not to mention the expense and extravagance of a movie ticket, relative to their unbudgeable budgets.

Hence, the have-nots are also theoretically unlikely to identify with the haves in the movie, without feeling even more wretched.

Clearly, any vicarious thrill up the legs of the poor in identifying with the lucky haves shouldn’t really make sense or even be possible without triggering an offsetting awareness of their own miserable have-not predicaments.

  • Translation into recruiting:  In recruiting terms, this is tantamount to trying to get a candidate to see himself in a job for which he is really not ready or qualified. While the recruiter tries to get the candidate to imagine the benefits of the job he’s selling, he’s unwittingly reminding the candidate of the out-of-reach requirements [s]he lacks, which puts the job also out of reach, even farther than the champagne yachts of Marseilles.

Hence, if a recruiter promotes a job as one fit for a career king of the hill and attempts to give the candidate a vicarious “feel” for it, the presentation had better not make the candidate feel, by comparison with the current or ideal job-incumbent, like an unqualified peasant drooling over a throne [s]he can never occupy.

How about identifying with some Depression-era movie’s have-not, never-say-die feisty character who becomes a have—in the rags-to-riches script? Now, that, as a plot line, has always worked very well indeed, but perhaps more as a “how to” blueprint for or roadmap to success, or at least as a source of hope, i.e., as training, fuel for faith and motivation, and less as vicariously experienced identity.

But, in this case the identification is ambiguous, shifting, volatile and an evolving juxtaposition of a composite identity: the have-not as a have in the making, much like the hybrid identity of Spiderman-in-the-making Peter Parker or Mickey Mouse as a mouse that isn’t just a mouse—and just as engaging, inspiring and entertaining.

  • Translation into recruiting: To really make the job look enticing, stress its transformative aspects—the alluring dimensions of becoming that which one is not yet, but which one deserves to be. While doing that, be sure to dangle outcomes that are, for the candidate, imaginable, very desirable and out of reach—but only temporarily so.

So instead of pie-in-the-sky promises and lures, offer “pie-on-the-shelf”—alluring, drool-inducing, but visibly within reach as grasp-in-the-making. In doing this, note that you are not offering identification with something or someone that is. Instead, you are suggesting visualization or other imaginings of a process of transformation and becoming.

In light of these observations, the hypothesis that audiences will identify with either the haves or the have-nots has problems, especially when that process is supposed to yield “vicarious pleasure” as the bait to lure in those moviegoers.

Vicarious Experience 101

Yes, the socioeconomic have-nots could revel in watching haves lose it all in a movie or seeing them get a comeuppance when it’s deserved. That’s simple schadenfreude. But that’s not vicarious pleasure of identification with the haves. It’s fantasized justice or revenge—i.e., identification with themselves or their surrogates as witnesses or instruments of that desired retribution against the haves, “the Establishment” or “the ruling elite”.

  • Translation into recruiting: When hiring a hero to replace a villain, e.g., an irresponsible, careless employee, encouraging the former to identify with the role of deserving have-job-not ousting the have-job latter might work as a hiring hook.

Cinema historiography of the 1930s clearly suggests this kind of identification as a reason for the wild popularity of the gangster movie genre during that era of rampant unemployment and financial ruin, as the victim becomes the victimizer [again, with an evolving identity, not an adopted one].

The parallel popularity of Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-focused movies during that period reinforces the notion of identification with an evolving, rather than established identity—a concept of some relevance to career identity formation and enticements. 

Yes, the have-nots could experience whatever “misery loves company” schadenfreude seeing The Grapes of Wrath afforded on the road to hope—in which case they are subtly projecting or softening their woes by normalizing them throughout their own socioeconomic class.

Likewise, the haves could delight in seeing their lifestyles validated as enviable, but that too is not really the vicarious pleasure of identification—neither with themselves nor with the have-nots.

Instead,  it is mostly gratifying projection, in the form of a reminder or reassurance that it is not they, the haves, who suffer, but those others, the unwashed, jobless have-nots.

Vicarious pleasure of identification requires putting oneself in the shoes of those with whom one is identifying, and not merely experiencing the darker pleasures of seeing some victimizers [also] getting the boots put to them.

Hence, it seems that whenever haves and have-nots enjoy watching movies about haves, it shouldn’t be because they are identifying with them. Yet, somehow, despite sound logic and psychology that’s precisely what seems to happen in many cases. But are appearances here too, as so often they are in life, deceiving?

In answering these questions, it must be noted that the paradox of vicarious experience is not limited in scope to the experiences of economic haves and have-nots. It also is inherent in every other movie have and have-not vicarious pleasure experience, e.g., romantic, action, superhero, horror and crime movie genre.

Nerd gets cheerleader, Bond thwarts Dr. No, Freddy Kruger gets you if you fall asleep, Dillinger gets shot and the Wolf of Wall Street gets much of it all back. In each case a have-not becomes a have or a have becomes a have-not—for example the happy-go-lucky teenagers who had it all, until Friday the 13th’s Freddy stalked and finished them.

Takeaway Movie Lessons for Recruiters

This much understood, what are the Depression-era movie takeaway lessons for recruiters?

  •  If you want to motivate a candidate, try dangling the prospect of becoming something more than what [s]he already is and thereby encourage him or her to imagine becoming who they have dreamed of becoming, much like the rags-to-riches hero of stock Depression-themed films. This means engaging their current self-understood identity as a springboard into a new, sought-for identity.

In other words, treat your candidates as though they are Depression-era movie goers: Don’t expect to excite them by offering what they already are or what they can never have or be, as much as by offering what they dream of becoming.

  • Don’t dangle a prospect that is likely to be perceived as unattainable, e.g., to become a “diamond” top-tier distributor in a multilevel marketing enterprise. That would be like showing videos of 20-yard buffets to starving refugees in migrant camps or Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 1930s musical extravaganza to an unemployed tramp without shoes.

Whatever you dangle, always portray it as within reach, lest you make it look too-good-to-be-true-for-you, the candidate. The danger of getting this wrong is very real, because there is a fine line between exalting a job position to make it irresistibly attractive and putting it on a pedestal too high for all but a god to deserve and occupy.

This means that if a recruiter wants to create anticipatory or vicarious experiences in a candidate, a vision of a credible path, rather than a wall, must be presented in a credible way.

Finally, and perhaps above all, don’t forget to also sell job candidates the key message of the Depression-era upbeat movie…

… the possibility of fulfilling and living the American dream.

Read more in Recruiting

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).