Updated: Jul 26
It is iconic... the music, the one-liners, the spectacular animatronic shark… It is challenging to find anyone on the planet that has not seen Jaws. Over 67 million people bought tickets at the box office in 1975 alone and the film remained on the list of highest grossing movies of all time for many years. Jaws created an iconic movie villain with just two musical notes, which projected the image of the great white shark deeply into the public consciousness... In an inaccurate and unrealistic manner. Today Jaws is more than four decades old, but this warped perception is still remarkably difficult to shift. So what effect do films like Jaws have on the public’s perception of real-life sharks? And will this 'Jaws Effect' ever wane?
What is the Jaws Effect?
The 'Jaws Effect' is a term coined by Dr Christopher Neff - a public policy professor at the University of Sydney - specifically to describe the enormous, detrimental impact that the movie Jaws had on the general public's opinion of sharks (Neff, 2015).
The fear of sharks does predate Jaws, but the movie capitalised on this fear; catapulting sharks into a demonic role and spawning an endless stream of shark monster movies, that are still being made today. For a public with little knowledge about sharks, these films make these animals seem extremely dangerous and vindictive. Furthermore, they imply that hunting them is the only solution to protect people from sharks. This attitude, can mean that people are irrationally afraid of sharks and deaf to alternative scientific narratives (Neff, 2015).
I personally love the film Jaws. I think it's fun and entertaining - a real classic. But I can watch a shark horror movie and laugh at the scientific inaccuracies, in the hope that the public is generally intelligent enough to know they are not based in fact. The problem with movies like Jaws, is that the presentation of a shark as a movie villain can perpetuate stereotypes that sharks are mindless killing machines (Neff, 2015).
“[Jaws was] a seminal turning point in the way the public perceived sharks… Almost overnight the white shark went from being considered an obscure ocean dweller to a man-eating monster with a lust for wanton killing... best eradicated from our planet forever.”
- Peschak (2006)
Did the Jaws Effect really harm sharks?
It is absolutely undeniable that Jaws was very bad for sharks. After the release of the movie, tournaments and shark fishing trips began to spring up all over the USA, with many different species of sharks (some not even remotely dangerous to human beings) being indiscriminately slaughtered. These were not necessarily bad people, they just believed the narrative that Spielberg so masterfully created and felt sharks should be eradicated to protect human beings (Neff, 2015).
Even worse, is that government policies were affected by Jaws. In a landmark article in 2015, Dr Neff discussed at length how the Jaws Effect allowed the government in Western Australia to implement shark culling programs in response to a string of shark attacks, despite it being scientifically proven that shark culling is ineffective in preventing attacks on humans (Neff, 2015).
This was possible because of the deeply ingrained perception that sharks are villains like the character in Jaws, and because an angry and emotional public was whipped into a vengeful frenzy by the media. Therefore, rather than carefully considering the best way to protect human beings from harmful wildlife interactions, this culling policy was actually based more in fear and revenge - the public needed someone to blame and sharks were a perfect scapegoat. Many sharks were culled in Australia as a result (including endangered species!) and these culling programs are still going on today (Neff, 2015).
Do we need to fear Jaws?
In reality, human beings do not need to fear sharks... in fact, sharks should fear us! Whilst human beings are statistically more likely to be killed by a domestic cow than a shark, human beings kill at least 100 million sharks every year! That means that in the time it takes you to read this article, approximately 950 sharks will have been killed somewhere in the world! (Worm et al, 2013).
As a result, shark populations are declining globally and sharks are now considered one of the most threatened groups of animals on our planet. At least a quarter of all species of sharks and their close relatives are now threatened with extinction according to the International Union for the conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2020).
The media has enormous power to shift the public’s perception of sharks, which can reduce public support for their conservation. If conservation measures to protect sharks are to be successful, it will be absolutely critical to have the support of the general public, with the news and film media making a concerted effort to present sharks more accurately in their programming (Neff, 2015, O’Bryhim & Parsons, 2015).
"Due to the combination of negative attitudes toward sharks and the critical need for improved shark conservation efforts, it is imperative to change the public perception of sharks"
- O’Bryhim & Parsons (2015)
Is the Jaws Effect waning?
Thankfully, there is hope that the modern public is becoming increasingly savvy and that the media may be losing its power to shift public attitudes towards the narrative of old. Today, with increased awareness surrounding climate change, plastic pollution and wildlife extinctions, the public consciousness is much more centred around sustainability than ever before! This mood of concern is providing a base for increasing education about the plight of sharks (O’Bryhim & Parsons, 2015).
For example, in recent years, shark culling plans in Australia have been met with rallies and petitions, citing the science and demanding alternative solutions to human-shark conflict. Bravo, guys!!
If we are to have any chance of saving our sharks from extinction, it will be vital that the general public understands that they do not need to fear a rogue shark coming for them! Sharks are not evil, they are not villains and they are absolutely vital to the health of our oceans.
If you agree, it is so, so important that you know that your voice matters! And you can make a difference! If we all refuse to rise to the media frenzy and come together to demand that our governments make better efforts to protect sharks, then there is hope that the Jaws Effect will continue to diminish... forgotten forever as a dark period in our history when we were poorly educated and unbelievably ignorant.
If you would like to learn more about the (low!) risk of shark attacks, you can check out my article "You are more likely to be killed by a coconut".
IUCN (2020). The international Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Access online.
Neff, C. (2015). The Jaws effect: how movie narratives are used to influence policy responses to shark bites in Western Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science, 50:1, 114–127. Access online.
O’Bryhim JR & Parsons ECM (2015). Increased knowledge about sharks increases public concern about their conservation. Marine Policy, 56, 43–47. Access online.
Peschak, T. (2006). Sharks and shark bite in the media. In: Nel, D.C. & Peschak, T.P. (Eds.) Finding a balance: White shark conservation and recreational safety in the inshore waters of Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town: World Wildlife Foundation.
Worm B, Davis B, Kettemer L, Ward-Paige CA, Chapman D, Heithaus MR, Kessel ST & Gruber SH (2013). Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy, 40, 194-204. Access online.