By Buddy Scalera published August 5, 2015

Movie Poster Creates JAWS-Dropping Visual Storytelling Lessons

jaws-visual-storytelling-lessons-cover 7_31_15

This post was co-written by CMI’s Creative Director, Joseph Kalinowski.

Dahhh dum. Dahhh dum. Dahhhhhhhhhh dum.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, it’s back.

Jaws hit the big screen in 1975, triggering the reign of the summer blockbuster. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the celebrated film returned briefly to movie theaters and that movie poster returned to theater lobbies (and T-shirts and other merchandise).

original-jaws-poster-image 1A

It is one of the most iconic movie posters and has been copied, ripped off, parodied, and honored in innumerable ways. Does the movie Jaws owe some of its success to the movie poster? We think so.

Movie posters are part of a traditional visual content marketing strategy designed to get people off the couch. The original Jaws poster by artist Roger Kastel told a clear, actionable story in a single image.

Visual storytelling was important in 1975, but it is far more critical to modern marketers who operate in growing visual-dominated social networks.

Forty years ago, most people read the newspaper to know what was happening. Movie poster artists had to create images that not only worked as full-color posters but also as smaller black-and-white ads in the newspaper movie sections that spanned several pages. Some movies were promoted with full-page ads incorporating hyperbolic language designed to stoke excitement. They included quotes from professional reviewers – many of whom wrote the content specifically so they would be featured in movie posters.

While many movie posters featured the star’s face with a catchy title and nice copy hook, movies without a bankable actor or actress had to entice their audiences differently. That was Kastel’s challenge. (First-time director Steven Spielberg was an unknown, as were its average-looking, lesser-known stars Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider.) The artwork had to sell Jaws on the promise of the story. Specifically, Kastel teased the features and benefits of buying a ticket to see a giant shark eat people, including a naked lady.

These days, it’s popular to bash “features and benefits” as a marketing technique, but they still matter. Unless you have an instantly recognizable brand, you have to build a story that attracts and educates your target customer.

Deconstruct the visual story

The Jaws movie poster sold the film on classic brand marketing storytelling:

  • Features (big shark)
  • Benefits (scary, possible nudity)

So, what made the poster so effective? It was composed to tell you exactly the kind of entertainment you could expect from the movie. The composition, the colors, and the simple visual story imparted a strong message. It was clear and motivating, contributing to Jaws becoming the first blockbuster summer film.

Let’s take a section-by-section look at why it drove people to the theater.








Kastel was a visual-storytelling master who controlled the viewer’s eye to give this poster true impact from a marketing perspective. He clearly illustrated what viewers could expect from the movie experience.

Consider the view

Let’s explore further how Kastel’s classic designs captured and guided the eye. First, let’s consider the idea of “trapped” or “white” space. Good designers don’t fill every single square inch of art with content. In fact, the relative framing and constraint of an image sometimes give its true impact.


The black frame creates a dark, somewhat claustrophobic feeling. Even though the setting is the ocean, the framing makes viewers feel like they’re looking through a narrow window. It’s the ultimate view of the helpless bystander. The lady is going to get eaten, and all you can do is watch.


Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the 40-year-old movie: The poster reflects a scene in the movie in which a naked young woman swims at night. If Kastel was trying to capture the exact moment in the film, the white background should have been a dark, starry night. But that would have lacked the impact necessary to draw in viewers. With the stark white background, the red logo pops. The swimmer’s arm brings motion and clarity through the color contrast.

The point here is to consider both the image that sells your brand and where it will be viewed. A digital ad would be developed differently than a social media image. Create multiple versions to match the size and aspect ratio of each distribution platform.

Tell one story

So, what do Kastel’s naked lady and shark have to do with your visual content strategy? Quite a lot.

You face competition for viewers like Jaws did. Only now, your visual competition is more than static images, it’s videos, animations, and sometimes a naked lady that appears in social media timelines, and it’s the easy ability to click on the “x” or “skip this video” link to get rid of uninteresting content.

The Jaws poster showed one story. It wasn’t trying to explain the whole movie or even multiple scenes. The image distilled a single message: Big scary shark movie. That’s it. If you like that sort of thing, this is the movie for you.

The limitations of the medium forced Kastel into telling one story. These days, we have so many multimedia options at our fingertips that we are fooled into thinking that more is better. More may be better, but you still have to grab attention with less information. Simplicity works well.

Imagine if you saw the Jaws image in your timeline. Even if you didn’t know the film, you might freeze on it for a moment because that primal image has true stopping power. Create images that have stopping power.

Don’t forget the call to action

Let’s say you do everything right. You tell a great visual story tailored to your target audience that explains why the features and benefits matter to them. It gets lots of shares. Good for you.

But what do you expect the viewer to do? Consider the call to action in your visual storytelling. In some cases, all you can expect is to reinforce some sort of value message. A click-to-act isn’t helpful. The movie poster, for example, really just needs viewers to go to the listings for show times. But more than likely, you want your viewers to click through to explore more details about your brand. Consider these tips:

  • Match your visual stories to your branding visuals. Content Marketing Institute, for example, uses orange as its primary color and Source Sans Pro as its base font but also incorporates a palette of complementary colors and fonts. When viewers click beyond the visual story, they arrive at a visually similar destination site, which reassures them they’re at the right place.
  • Make sure the action complements the visual story. All too often, marketers create infographic orphans that don’t really tie back to the destination website. Confused viewers don’t know what to do, so they leave. Make sure that your visual story’s call to action is easy to find and guides your viewer to a relevant next-click action.


It’s never been a better time to be a content marketer who embraces visual storytelling. Opt-in channels are making it easier for your customers to self-select the content and messaging that they want to see. It’s also making it more difficult for you because visual stories require distilling your message into a simple concept.

So how do you incorporate movie-poster theory into your visual content marketing strategy? Remember, movie posters are meant to draw the audience in. Aesthetically pleasing, they are meant to highlight the point of the film and entice the potential moviegoers who walk by. What highlights of your content could you throw out there to pull in your audience? Do you have some aesthetically enticing visuals that tell a story to promote your content?

One thing for sure, when you create visual stories that have your audience hearing “dahhhh dum, dahhhh dum,” they’ll know it’s time to get out of the water and into your content.

Want to know the inside story of how the iconic poster came to be? Read Buddy’s interview with Joe who shares his expertise on Jaws’ history.

Want to take your storytelling efforts to new levels of success? Get help creating stunning visuals with these 27+ Handy Tools for Better Visual Content Marketing.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Buddy Scalera

Buddy Scalera is a healthcare content strategist working in Parsippany, NJ. He is the author of five published books on content, creativity, and visual storytelling. In his free time, he writes superhero comic books. Learn more at and Follow Buddy on Twitter at @BuddyScalera.

Other posts by Buddy Scalera

  • Nicole MacLean

    Love the step-by-step breakdown of why this design works. Very helpful article!

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Nicole! Glad you enjoyed it. Can you tell that Buddy and I had fun with this article? ; )

    • Buddy Scalera

      Yeah, thanks, Nicole. We used it as an excuse to buy JAWS merchandise. It was “work related.”

  • Cameron Conaway

    Wow. Impressive work, Buddy and Joseph! This was the best piece on visual storytelling I’ve read since I studied Making Comics by Scott McCloud back in grad school. And way to link these skills to content marketing!

    • Buddy Scalera

      Thanks, Cameron. I think that Understanding Comics should be required reading for comic creators and web designers. McCloud is one of my big influences.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thank you, Cameron! It was a great project to work on. It’s funny you bring up comics as Buddy and I had a long discussion this very afternoon about comics and content marketing.

      • Cameron Conaway

        So interesting, @josephkalinowski:disqus! I originally studied Understanding Comics and then Making Comics only because I was fascinated by the ways in which its lessons could carry over to how poetry uses space on the page. Now this… for content marketing. Ha! Seemingly infinite application! I could certainly see you two creating a killer white paper or, dare I say, book on the topic?

        • Joseph Kalinowski

          Tempting, Cameron… Very tempting!

    • Lisa Dougherty

      @cameronconaway:disqus Thanks for your comment! Thought you might also want to check this out too: How to Tell a Compelling B2B Story Using Comics:

      • Cameron Conaway

        Very cool. Thanks, Lisa!

  • cullmann

    Nice article and a great assessment of the composition. One of the subtle nuances of the poster is typography. Take a look at the shapes that are used: The “jaw” that is created in the white negative space in the “W” and he sharp spaces in the “A”. There is also a nice alteration of the traditional character proportions in the the exaggerated “hooks” in the “J” and “S” characters. Great break-down of an icon of ’70’s culture.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Great observation, Cullman! Interestingly enough, the use of the nameplate was one thing that was preserved from the original hard cover design created by Paul Bacon for Bantam books. The only difference from Bacon’s typography and Roger Kastel’s (seen above) is that Bacon exaggerated that “hook” look even more off the J.

    • Buddy Scalera

      Thanks, Chris. Back when this was created, the artist didn’t have 500 TrueType fonts on a laptop. They really must have spent a lot of time getting the lettering and logo just the way they wanted them.

  • NenadSenic

    Thanks guys, you made my case with a client easier; she wants to turn a detailed enough yet simple image for a cover into a “mess” by adding stuff to it to make her coworkers happy rather than making it clear to readers.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Ahhh yes, Nenad, I have been there. That is a hard battle to fight!!!

    • Buddy Scalera

      Glad it worked for you. And I’ve been there too. Often we have to guide our clients to tell one focused story and then build from there. Getting to the one story is often the hardest part.

  • rogercparker

    Outstanding article! I love the progressive “deconstruction” of the poster.
    Interesting…one article from two of my favorite content marketers and “visual people.”

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Roger! We had a blast with this one, for sure.

    • Buddy Scalera

      Thanks, Roger. Will we see you at CMWorld in a few weeks?

      • rogercparker

        Definitely! It’s the content marketing event of the world–the Woodstock of content marketing.