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The Story Elements That Make Die Hard Immortal—And What Content Marketers Can Learn From Them

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As a content marketer, you want your potential customers to buy your shampoo because, well, look at it: it’s really that good. It smells nice, it makes your hair utterly ravishing, and it keeps your roots healthy. Heck, you even use it yourself. What’s not to love?

But as it turns out, your customer’s perfectly happy with her regular brand of shampoo. It gives her comfort knowing what she’s going to get in that bottle. She doesn’t want to switch up her game.

So how do you use the right story elements to win your customer over to your product?

Now let’s turn from shampoo to the high-octane days of 1980s cinema. During the thaw of the Cold War, comically high-testosterone action flicks were the blockbusters of the day.

Work with me here—it will all make sense.

Remember 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, Sylvester Stallone “yaaaaar-ing” at high volume as he emptied yet another magazine of bullets into a computer system to end a two-hour festivity of explosions, gunfire, and blistering, sweaty biceps?

Or that other chestnut from 1985, Commando? Pec-flexing ex-Special Forces Col. John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is recruited back into action when his daughter, played by Alyssa Milano, is kidnapped by baddies. Cue the usual explosions, gunfire, near-beheadings, amputations, and other violent fare, plus sassy one-liners.

Despite their best attempts to tug the heartstrings of moviegoers, both Rambo II and Commando are escapist fare. They’re not the type of story that leaves a lasting impact. They survive not as enduring stories but as campy cultural artifacts.

Now consider 1988’s Die Hard, which regularly places at the top of “best action movie” lists. It’s number one according to Complex, and number two according to Thrillist and the crowd-sourced Ranker, second only to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rather than giving in to the usual tropes that hobbled (and more so, dated) the others, Die Hard offered something fresh and exciting.

Deepen the Connection

Cheeky Christmas references aside, Die Hard sent shock waves through the movie industry on its release. And movie buffs remember it well, referencing it regularly to this day. That’s what you want people doing with your shampoo. You can go all Rapunzel or slo-mo shower scene on the target audience, but those tired tropes won’t resonate. You know what will resonate? Using story elements that connect with the audience on a deeper level. That’s what gets people thinking about—and remembering—your shampoo later.

Here are three ways in which Die Hard succeeds in this sort of memory retention:

1. The Protagonist Is Just a Regular Guy

When Die Hard first came out, the reaction was swift and merciless. In a world of Stallones, Schwarzeneggers, Van Dammes, and Seagals, the comparatively diminutive Bruce Willis surfaced as the movie’s protagonist, John McClane. You might as well have featured Man in the High Castle‘s DJ Qualls or Love‘s Paul Rust in a role more fitting to someone such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Vin Diesel.

Willis’ previous leads were in Sunset, a forgotten Blake Edwards vehicle, and Blind Date, a dark comedy co-starring Kim Basinger as the date from hell. But he was best known for his role opposite Cybill Shepherd in the popular TV comedy-drama, Moonlighting. Nothing about guns, explosions, scars, or sweaty biceps were in his acting resume.

And suddenly, Willis, all 170 or so pounds of him, complete with acerbic tongue and smartass movie-star smirk, was thrust into the shoes (or lack of thereof) of the mild-mannered estranged husband and New York cop McClane, who flies to Los Angeles to repair his relationship with his wife.

Schwarzenegger and Stallone are the ones we fantasize about being but never will be. Willis is the one we actually are: a regular guy thrust into an implausible situation. We get him.

Much has been made of the subsequent transformation of McClane into an action star, and not all of it is good; in The Atlantic’s review of A Good Day to Die Hard, the franchise is described as needing to end precisely because McClane has become invincible. He’s no longer believable or, more importantly, relatable. The sequels, as a result, start to suck. It’s harder to have real empathy for a man who seemingly can’t be killed, hence the drawback of Rambo and Commando.

2. The Protagonist Reacts Just as We Would

Think quickly—what would you do if you were walking down the street and all of a sudden, a car blows up in front of you? Would you stiffen your chin, assess the scene quickly for casualties, grab ahold of the nearest M-16, and track down the bad guys who did this?

No, you likely would not. You’d have one of two reactions. You might freeze in disbelief and not know what to do. Maybe pull out your cellphone in a daze and punch 911 with trembling fingers. Or you go into full panic mode, running for your life, mumbling incoherent WTFs in doing so. Your breathing increases in both speed and shallowness, you break out in sweat, and your eyes are bugging out.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger took the stiff-chin, M-16 route, and good for them. They just steeled themselves and marched into the fray because it was their specialty. On the flip side, Willis’ McClane was the everyman who reacted with “holy shit,” fear, and darkly comical quips. He personifies our own reactions in a similar quandary: not superhuman and stoic but absolutely terrified. Consider his spooked face early in the movie as he pulls himself to safety after nearly plummeting down an elevator shaft to his death (again, an everyman error): “Come out to the coast! We’ll get together, have a few laughs.”

Look at that face. You can just feel how he’s on the verge of peeing his pants in terror. No matter how outlandish the situation may be, Die Hard makes it easy for us to emotionally connect to the protagonist because his reactions were real and genuine. Just how we’d react in the same situation.

3. The Cast is Three-Dimensional

This is one of the crucial strengths of Die Hard. Many movies make the mistake of being so cookie-cutter in their character prototypes: you have the good-guy protagonist, the villain antagonist, the love interest, the sidekick, and so on. While Die Hard has all of these, the characters are more well-rounded than we’re accustomed to. McClane is the protagonist, to be sure, but he’s also kind of a jerk, and we can see how he would be estranged from his wife. He is imperfect and fallible. That makes him more real to us.

The lead antagonist, Hans Gruber, has an admirable fixation on a well-executed plan and is measured and calculated in his mannerisms. He’s often described as one of the great movie villains—clever, thinks on his feet, always one step ahead of McClane. He’s also a lot of fun.

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (Flickr credit: Snape's True Love)

Hans’ henchman, Karl, could easily be a two-dimensional thug, but we feel and understand his rage because that jerk McClane killed his brother, and in a deliberately provocative way. Again, as bad as Gruber and Karl may be, we can relate to them both because their mannerisms feel real. We can understand their motivations.

And of course, there’s Holly Gennero, the ex-wife love interest, who isn’t just a beauty in high heels—she, in fact, says on observing an enraged Karl: “Only John could drive someone that crazy.” So much goes on in those seven simple words: love, anger, sadness, resentment, compassion, relief. You can see right then that she still loves him.

What You Can Learn from Die Hard-ing

The power of that aforementioned line from Gennero is something we don’t see enough of in run-of-the-mill action movies; it really pulls at our heartstrings. You need to make your situation, characters, and, ultimately, story elements, as relatable to the everyday person as possible. In this particular case, we’ve all had our relationship troubles, so we can relate to Gennero and McClane in that situation.

Many marketers make the elementary mistake of promoting a product or service by “selling” it to the audience. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that, your audience is likely to respond in a blasé way.

Rather, it’s about using creative thinking to make your audience feel. When you do that, you show you value your audience’s feelings, and the resulting emotional connect gives your message greater power.

There’s science behind it, too. Douglas Van Praet said in Fast Company: “We are exquisitely social creatures. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

That’s what Die Hard does—it’s not the rooftop explosion itself that we remember, because that explosion is just like any other awesome, kablooey event. Rather, it’s the way Bruce Willis handles it all: the moment when he realizes just how crazy it is to jump off the edge of the building with nothing but a fire hose tied around his waist. You feel his fear. During the cringing moment where he’s pulling glass out of his foot, you feel his pain. With his defeated, desperate tone as he talks to a cop on his walkie-talkie in the meantime, realizing how badly he screwed up with Holly, again, you feel for him.

If Stallone or Schwarzenegger—the latter who, incidentally, was approached to play McClane before other projects got in the way—had been John McClane, that stiff, detached reaction we’ve seen in their other movies will lead to, well, a detached feeling in the audience. We won’t relate nearly as well; we won’t feel them nearly as well.

Look at it this way: You don’t remember what shampoo you used eight years ago, right? But I’ll bet you remember vividly the feeling you had when your secret crush told you your hair smelled nice. So, in your shampoo commercial, show the awkward girl beaming with pride at the end when her secret crush gives her a second look—and maybe even a phone number—because her hair looks and smells nice. That’s a feeling that dies hard.

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Keith MacKenzie is an editorial manager at Skyword, and has more than a decade of full-time experience as writer and editor in the mainstream and community media. He has worked in numerous different capacities including in non-profit, digital marketing, blogging, report writing and editing, international development, community management and many other fields. Originally from Vancouver, he now makes his home in the Boston area. He has been to Chernobyl—twice—and sometimes wonders if he still has all his marbles.

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