The Art of the Flash Mob, Or How to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself

27 10 2011

I know, I know. Flash Mobs are supposed to be spontaneous, and they’re still trending because they’re so open to interpretation. And I know that once you standardize something, it becomes rote and boring. But let’s face it, now that companies are joining in, we need to set up some ground rules to avoid hasty promotional efforts muddying up this art form and prevent real embarrassment.

Yes, Flash Mobs are quirky, funny, and trendy–and, as such, they can be an effective way to cut through the marketing and advertising clutter that this digital marketplace. The logic goes something like this: Do something seemingly spontaneous in which multiple people get together in a planned spontaneous way in a public place and make a spectacle that people will capture and post to YouTube, forward to friends, etcetera and etcetera.

Though seemingly easy as that sounds, there are some who have gotten it, and some who have not. Let’s start with the have nots (or at least one have not): Arby’s.

Now, let’s forget for a second that this is the absolute worst ad jingle out this year (I’m not alone on this one: 115,000 people agree).  Let’s look just at the delivery of this Arby’s-sponsored event. First, if you’re going to do a flash mob, at least make sure the flash-mobbers are all on the same page, know the dance steps, can effectively keep the beat, and, in this case, can sing on key. Second, there’s an issue of credibility here: It’s just hard to imagine that a group of people would actually get together to dance and sing about Arby’s, using that jingle, and in the rain. Which brings up the third point: They tried too hard. Yes, it’s in the rain, and yes, that means everyone can carry a pink umbrella, and yes, it fits the message strategy: Arby’s is “good mood food” even on a rainy day. But if you want to make an outdoor spectacle captured by hundreds of smartphone cameras, make sure it’s at a moment when people will actually want to stand there and record it. Last of all, a flash mob needs to be at least somewhat entertaining. This one, with its lack of coordination and questionable spontaneity, may have tipped the uncomfortable-to-watch and unintended-comedy scales in the wrong direction. The result: only 6K youtube viewers with 3x as many dislikes as likes (Lest ye be deceived that 6K is respectable:  this guy gets almost 30-100K per video rant)

Now, let’s move to an example that actually works as a flashmob: The Copenhagen Philharmonic Performs Ravel’s Bolero.

Public place? Check.

Entertaining? Check.

Believable Spontaneity? Check.

Worth capturing and posting online? Check.

The beauty of the Copenhagen Philharmonic’s flash mob is that not only was it a perfectly executed flash mob–planned but seemingly spontaneous–the medium matched the message. Fans of Ravel’s Bolero will know that the beauty of the piece is its incremental addition of musical elements on the same theme, growing to a powerful conclusion. The flash mob matched the piece’s brilliant simplicity, and earned its space as a public spectacle evidenced by the slowing of foot traffic as busy commuters stopped to enjoy the music and its 2 million+ hits.

What do these two dramatically different episodes tell us about the art of flash mobbing?

1) The Medium Has to Match the Message: Just because you can get people to dance and sing in public in proclamation of the love of your brand doesn’t mean you should. The art of the flash mob is that it earns public attention by being creative and original–not just because it’s public.

2) It must be Spontaneous, but planned: In spite of its seemingly spontaneous nature, a flash mob must be planned, which means incentivizing the right people and actually practicing beforehand.

3) Right place, right time, please: Arby’s chose Times Square even though there are no Arby’s in Manhattan. Sure, it’s the most “visible” place in the country, if not the world, but why not Atlanta where they’re headquartered? Why not draw on possible local pride? It’s probably also best to avoid rainy days, no matter how much you think a “singing in the rain” remake will fit your brand message.

4) It has to be creative: For a trend as old as YoutTube, we need to move beyond dancing and singing. There are plenty of spontaneous collaboration efforts out there to choose from. Anyone up for some good old fashioned Vaudeville?

5) Create a Spectacle, but Don’t Embarrass Yourself: What did our moms used to tell us? Don’t make a scene. That advice even pertains to Flash Mobs, which is odd because you’re trying to make a scene. But one thing is to put together a creative coordination of random strangers that draws cheers–It’s another thing to draw a crowd of onlookers for an embarrassing public spectacle. They’re both going to get posted on YouTube and they’re both going to get views. Embarrassing will certainly “cut through the clutter,” but probably not the way you were hoping.