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Sleaze in the cinema: The Big Short shows us how to teach compliance

I have made around 200 animated short videos for global compliance programs. Companies use animation because it makes sense to make training that is clear, enjoyable and broken down into bite-sized chunks.

My view of animation and training came from being a practicing lawyer in the UK, when I saw first hand how complex communications led to confusion among the stakeholders in the judicial system, even among clients.

First off, animation doesn’t just mean drawn images. The word “animation” comes from “animate,” which means being full of life and vigor — as in, What animates her enthusiastic approach to work?

So what about The Big Short? When I saw the film, I thought it was a perfect example of animation. I’m not talking about the film’s accuracy, storyline, or characters; I’m talking about its clear, no nonsense, engaging way of teaching people about complicated, overwhelming, and sometimes boring topics — namely how subprime mortgages led to the 2008 financial crisis. As Wired magazine said, “The Big Short somehow makes subprime mortgages entertaining.”

Director Adam McKay used a stripper in a bubble bath to explain subprime mortgages. He used a tower of Jenga blocks to show how securities are sliced into “tranches.” He used Anthony Bourdain in a cameo appearance with seafood stew to explain collateralized debt obligations. Those images are unforgettable, and they’re great animation.

Like subprime mortgages, the subject of compliance can bore people, or make them feel nervous, worried, and a bit defensive. Yet we all face temptation in our work lives and most of us struggle from tme to time with ethical dilemmas.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s get it out in the open. Let’s animate it.

This time, we can use actual cartoons. And why not? They helped make newspapers popular, especially on Sundays. They taught us about politics and social issues that can be touchy subjects unless some humor is thrown in (think of the Simpsons).

Here science backs up what we already know: emotion is essential to learning and remembering. Richard Cytowic (1996), a memory researcher, said, “It is an emotional calculus, more than a logical one, that animates us.”

Here are a few reasons why emotions help us understand and remember important lessons:

Humor. As the Big Short demonstrates, humor defuses difficult or unsavory issues. And educational researchers have shown that humor can improve retention in students from kindergarten through college. Again, think of the Simpsons. No other show has dealt with more politically charged issues and been more widely seen around the world. People take the Simpsons characters at face value, notwithstanding that Bart has been the height of a 10-year-old boy for 26 years.

Storytelling. Once upon a time, there were some researchers in Spain who discovered that when we’re being told a story, not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but other areas of our “wiring” that are used when experiencing the events of the story, are also activated. When we experience an emotionally charged event, our brain releases dopamine into our system, making it easier to remember with greater accuracy.

Images. In a world full of visual marketing, posters, films, art, cartoons, photographs, exhibits, graphic novels and comic books, it seems obvious that images capture our attention and improve recollection. But if you want to look for evidence, look no further than the studies that show imagery and, indeed, bizarre imagery, is an aid to remembering. Remember that woman in the bubble bath explaining mortgage bonds!

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Animation can’t guarantee compliance. Nothing can. But if people are engaged in their training, they’re more likely to remember it, and more likely to reach a deep enough understanding to be able to ask questions. In other words, they are more likely to become self-aware when they face a decision involving some kind of ethical dilemma or compliance practice.

The Big Short director Adam McKay wisely used animation to teach us some sophisticated economic theory behind the bubble and crash in the housing market, and it worked.

That speaks volumes about the value of animating difficult and complex messages in a way that can actually change thinking and behavior.


Nicole Rose is CEO of Create Training. She’s a lawyer, trainer, writer and artist. Together with her team of animators and artists, Create Training has been making compliance training videos for learners around the world. It can customize training in any language and also has a collection of animated compliance training videos. She can be contacted here.

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1 Comment

  1. Great FCPA Blog, Nicole. Important to highlight how innovations – in whatever form – can multiply the impact of Compliance communications and trainings. This holds true internationally and at all levels in organisations. The ability to drive innovation, while maintaining professional rigour and integrity, is surely one of the great underrated skills of Compliance Officers.

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