Flash Mob Marketing: Culture Jamming Co-Opted

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Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...), Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Pranksters, Publicity Stunts

[Editor’s Note: The below link has some factual errors. The photo of the No-Pants mission in London is actually of Charlie Todd’s Improv Everywhere event in NYC, and the Best Buy event took place at Target in 2006, not 2007.]


From 1 Million 1 Shot, August 2, 2007:

Flash Mobs, Culture Jams, and other Impromptu Rallies

On January 13, 2007, over 300 people participated in the largest No-Pants mission that invaded the London’s Underground, for no other purpose than to freak other riders out. They rallied using text messages.

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In San Francisco on Valentine’s Day of 2007, a group of 4,000 individuals, split into two groups wielding pillows, and lined up across from another in a Braveheart-like scenario. As the clock struck 6 o’clock the two groups ran full speed at one another, and proceeded to pillow fight for over an hour. Attendees were informed of the location and time via a website, through texts messages, and countless emails.

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On February, 19th 2007 a large group of individuals entered a Best Buy store dressed in blue polo shirts and khakis, while a group of people with red polo shirts and khakis entered a Target. The so-called “agents” did not claim to work at the store, but would be friendly and helpful if anyone had a question. The “flash-mob” stayed for less than five minutes, and coordinated the entire fiasco via email and text messages.

These events are stereotypical of the new cultural phenomena known as flash-mobs and culture jams. They are a random in nature, sometimes have little to no motive, and are arranged primarily via the Internet and mobile communication devices.

One of the most recent advancements in organizing these happenings has been through the development of a service called Twitter. Wikipedia defines Twitter as a social networking service that allows users to send “updates” (text-based posts, up to 140 characters long) via SMS, instant messaging, the Twitter website, or an application such as Twitterrific. Updates are displayed on the user’s profile page and also instantly delivered to other users who have signed up to receive them. It is easy for groups of Twitterers to coordinate when and where to meet.

Companies such as Wrigley’s have found innovative ways to pursue this cultural community movement. To launch into the flash-mobbing world, they created the Dry Spell Institute, an institute founded on the principal of preventing “dry spells” for those in search of romance. The institute suggested that the cure to preventing these dry spells was by having a fresh and tasty mouth. The Dry Spell Institute then launched the first giant “flash snog” (kissing session) in London to spread the word of their new gum, Extra Ice, which keeps people’s breath fresher and cooler longer.

The INPES, the French national health institute, used a known flash mob, the Free Hugs flash-mob, to promote a campaign against discriminations towards people with HIV. On March 26th in France, viral films and cable T.V. featured people “free hugging” each other, and urging them to do the same to combat discrimination towards those infected with HIV. Additionally, they created a virtual world where viewers can create an avatar and free hug people in the virtual world.

Flash-mobbing and cultural jamming does not end in the real world, it carries into the Internet. Some independent artists have already used the technique to try to increase their sales and popularity on iTunes for instance. Other flash-mobbing has occurred in Second Life, where hundreds of mobbers invaded a space that was being used for an interview.

Another phenomenon, real life gaming, takes another step towards the idea of taking down the virtual barriers of the web. Dozens of games have thus appeared in real life as people started adopting elements and acting out the role of characters from video games.

To take an example, Pac-Manhattan is a large-scale urban game that incorporates the New York City streets to simulate the video game Pac-Man. The game is coordinated using cell-phones, Wi-Fi, and custom software. The Pac-Man and the ghosts are tracked from a central location and their progress is broadcast over the internet to viewers.

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There have also been organized water gun assassin games around the world, where participants receive information about their target to “kill” via manila envelopes and information on a website. The game continues as such until a the top assassin “kills” all the opponents.

Regardless of where they take place, all flash-mobs and culture jams are organized with the help of the web and other communication devices.

The bridge between the internet and real world is beginning to merge, and the technology at hand makes it possible for events to be coordinated from anywhere at anytime. The possibility to harness this sense of community in order to bring ideas that live on the web alive and visible to the world is very real. This is a new and unproven media, but a distinct advantage would lie in the hands of the companies that are able to leverage these communities’ energies and enthusiasm to their advantage.

Use them to create ground swell awareness about a new product, stir up viral discussions surrounding your product or brand, stimulate P.R., generate discussion in the blogosphere, or simply get people excited about your offerings. Think of culture jams as additional ways to support a feeling about your brand or product.

It is important to understand that undertaking a marketing initiative incorporating flash mobbing and culture jam tactics is a step forward to better connect with your audience. However, the goal must be to create experiences that the target community will relate to, engage with, and talk about. The initiatives must be entertaining, demand involvement, be meaningful, and take the brand or product forward in doing so. Remember, it is about socialization on a personal level with your target base, and make sure you put forward the brand or product’s best and most appropriate attributes.