The flash mob. Remember that? Social experiment, turned viral, turned marketing bandwagon. Then… nothing. Where did it come from? Where the hell did it go? And is it rising from the dead? Samuel Crosby finds out.

An everyday highstreet scene. Suddenly a commotion breaks out. A beat begins to pulse. The crowd moves in time, stamping, twisting, spinning, leaping. Onlookers are thrilled. And there’s not a rock star in sight. This is the power of participation; the thrill of the joining urge. Of belonging. Of surprise. In seconds the mob will be broadcast outward, reaching millions more people at the touch of a button.

By the late Noughties, a flash mob reaching any less than 1,000,000 pairs of eyes was a flop.

Staci Lawrence, owner of American Flash Mobs, recalls one client’s $80,000 budget when the flash mob was at the top of its game. “People would volunteer for free,” she says. “They would participate just to tick flash mobs off their bucket list, or to rub shoulders with the celebrity talent.”

Put flash mob into Google Trends (remember that?) and you’ll see the popularity peak around May 2011. A whole year after T-Mobile had won commercial of the year at the British Television Advertising Awards for its Liverpool Street Station flash mob-style ad, flash mobs just started to creep up to a critical mass. The BBC had a feature about how to plan your own flash mob. The London choir had a flash mob, there were flash mob dances going on in every school gym in America.

“Now, at the ripe old age of 15, the flash mob still exists. But it’s a shadow of its former self. And, like a zombie considering its own arm for dinner, it’s completely at odds with itself.”

Samuel Crosby

You might have wondered what happened to the flash mob. But, if you thought it was dead, you couldn’t have been more wrong.

It’s undead.

Now, at the ripe old age of 15 (that’s at least 95 in viral memeyears) the flash mob still exists. But it’s a shadow of its former self. And, like a zombie considering its own arm for dinner, it seems to be completely at odds with itself.

Flash mob marketers use words like ‘unrehearsed’ and ‘spontaneous’. No, when Ozzy bit the heads off some doves, that was unrehearsed. The modern, branded flashmob is so constrained by goals and guardians – ROI, budgets, producers, choreographers – that, no matter the cost or the quality of execution, the final product has nothing spontaneous about it.

So what does that leave us with? What can contemporary marketers learn from the flash mob? And, whilst we’re on the subject, how did it come to this?

Patient zero

It all started with Bill Wasik in New York City. From May 2003 onwards, he designed some events to poke around in the theory of deindividuation which says that inhibitions disappear when individuals feel anonymous within a bigger group. His chosen group: hipsters.

After staying anonymous for the first three years, Wasik broke his silence in March 2006. He revealed himself with an article in Harper’s magazine: My Crowd: A report from the inventor of the flash mob.

“Seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender,” Wasik wrote, “it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene – meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work.”

With anonymous emails, he planned events around New York City. Participants arrived, performed an action, then dispersed, all within specific time constraints. During the first successful flash mob, 200 people gathered around a rug in a Macy’s. In another, they stared at a hotel lobby from a balcony for five minutes and 15 seconds.

At the heart of it all, Wasik’s first concern was the people involved.

The infected

As the budding storytellers and activists they were, it didn’t take long for participants to start questioning the possibility of the flash mob.

One of Wasik’s concepts was to keep the mob areas small, giving the mob ‘self awe’ and the participants a greater sense of belonging. Those participants didn’t know that they were the experiment. They wanted to break out into bigger spaces to perform to more people.

“Where does the idea go from here?” Chris from CCE blog asked Wasik. “After seeing hundreds of people show up for no good reason, it’s obvious that there’s some kind of potential for artistic or political expression here.”

In the eighth flash mob participants were instructed to follow the orders from a speaker on a pole. It was the last flash mob Wasik would run. “The cheering of the hundreds grew so great that it drowned out the speakers”, he wrote. “The mob had become unmoored.”

“The cheering of the hundreds grew so great that it drowned out the speakers. The mob had become unmoored.”

Bill Wasik

The media, along with the New York hipster-mill, was infected. In the years following, the concept started to pick up in complexity and scale. Wasik’s social experiment turned into performance art, designed more for the spectacle than the study of the mob itself. The new format also carried messages. Movements, protests, political stands and, you guessed it, brands.

It spread at an unprecedented rate. Through video phones, faster download times and the big-hitting social media platforms (Facebook in 2004, Youtube in 2005, Twitter in 2006), the flash mob went viral.

The hoard

This evolved version is probably what you imagine when you think of a flash mob. A much more co-ordinated beast; usually a dance. A group of people meet in a public place to follow a script, anything from an operatic masterpiece to a loose structure for improv. 

Ruth Carter, owner of Carter Law Firm in Phoenix, Arizona and specialist in flash mob law,  recalls troubled flash mobs, like this one, where an innocuous looking handful of people have the sound cut off midway through their performance. “I don’t know if Yelp was doing this to promote the brand, or what their goal was. This mall has put us all on notice that anyone who does a flash mob there will be arrested for trespassing.” 

Marketing, disruptive by nature.   

With its huge reach (T-Mobile’s Dance is up to 41 million views, Banco Sabadell’s orchestra flash mob almost double at 78 million), it didn’t take long to start showing up on advertising briefs and budget lines. First with independentoutfits, then big brands.

Carter saw the changes in the flash mob. “The big difference seems to be that big business and brands seem to all want the choreographed dance flash mob,” she says. “They take a lot of work and preparation – both legal (participant releases, liability waivers, IP assignments or licenses, etc.) and otherwise (recruiting participants, rehearsals, etc.).”

You might think, with its spontaneity lobotomized, that this was the moment the flash mob lost its popularity. But it was shown that it didn’t have to hang on to ‘honest’ roots to thrive. Companies could be successful with pre-rehearsed events – as long as they were recorded. 

“Where the original flash mobs were mostly organic – groups of friends, volunteers, insiders – who came together to create a transitory moment, it became possible to hire an entire mob. And the transitory moment itself was no longer important, it was the record of that moment that mattered,” says Ian James Ward on his blog post The Life and Death of the Flash Mob.

Ward goes on to suggest that the death of the flash mob was the definition of its purpose: “If the point of the flash mob was its pointlessness, if its meaning came from its meaninglessness, then to apply a layer of purposefulness to it automatically kills its very essence.”

This isn’t the whole truth. T-Mobile is a case in point. The ad was serving a purpose, one that came from a line on the marketing team’s budget sheet, but it still resonated. Whether it was the positioning of ‘Life’s For Sharing’, the uniqueness of a flash mob in the mainstream media, or the shared joy of the smiling participants, the ad resonated.

The golden formula

A branded flash mob is, at its heart, an ad. Whether the company name is up front in the video title or subtly shone through the content itself, the point is to raise awareness and increase brand equity. No matter how clever or fluffy, it’s still an ad.

And key to the success of this type of ad, is emotional connection. The staying power of the flash mob is a testament to the power of emotion in brand messaging. Joy and surprise, even presented in a replicated formula of group dance, landed with consumers time and time again for the best part of 10 years.

“Only when people have a strong affective response to the video content, such as humor, fear, sadness or inspiration, will they be willing to forward it to others,” says Philip S Grant in the Journal of Marketing Communications. “Branded flash mobs have proven to elicit a heightened affective response in consumers and have a proven record to be successful virally.”

On the other side, flash mobs ran the gauntlet of negative social commentaries. Consumers, with wide open lines for communications (Reddit, Facebook etc), hid behind avatars so the commentaries were much more honest and brand managers hadless and less control.It was this that eventually put the branded flash mob in the ground: the combination of lost uniqueness and a growing crowd of negative social commentary.

The vaccine

According to Google Trends, flash mobs have fallen 93% in popularity since May 2011. Branded flash mobs still exist today, but they’re vacant husks – shuffling around in dark corners of the internet, a dozen-too-many clicks through YouTube’s related content, looking for some braaains.

“Brands used to say, ‘We want to go viral.’ We could never promise that. We wanted to know how the story was different. Could it lift up members of the community? Could it disrupt the status quo?”

Staci Lawrence, American Flash Mobs

There’s no-one better than Lawrenceto give perspective on the latest version of flash mob. “We used to have brands say ‘we want to go viral’,” she says. “We could never promise that. We wanted to know how the story was different. Could it lift up members of the community? Could it disrupt the status quo?”

Lately, a lot of Lawrence’s work is for marriage proposals, renewal of vows and community projects. “It’s about the people. The physical connection. Flash mobbers scream and cry when a wedding proposal gets a yes. We’re no longer just strangers in Central Park,” she says. “Witnessing a flash mob live will always be amazing. Unsuspecting bystanders in a real-world moment. It’s joy.”

The blue trendline charting the rise and fall of the flash mob makes a neat triangle shape. It’s a shape you’ll see again if you check in on other viralstwerking, planking, bottle flipping. But you won’t find the flash mob on Wikipedia’s ‘List of Internet phenomena’ with dabbing and Harlem Shaking. Flash mobs stand apart because they connected us.

“It’s so much fun!” says Carter. “I love seeing the looks for surprise and joy on people’s faces when they realize they’re encountering something delightfully unexpected.

The branded flash mob might be chained to a radiator (how else do you deal with an exhausted zombie?), but a healthier, community-driven version has taken its place. And that’s the way the flash mob will stay. In the physical space. Wedding proposals, 60th birthdays and community projects, connected by a shared experience.

There are still opportunities to build brand equity in face-to-face activations and original experiences. And although the time has passed for brands to leverage the flash mob format the way they used to, there’s something to be said for the magic formula that drove them: emotional connections. Visual stories that give a crowd something to shout about: values and beliefs. Here are some of the best.

Turner Benelux’s ‘Press for drama’campaign for TNT 

After a passer-by pressed a big, tempting button, a Hollywood-esque stunt scene broke out. You could call it an evolved flash mob, or something new altogether, either way it’s had 15 million views on YouTube. 

West Jet’s Christmas miracle 

Taking the experience and emotional connection to the next level, garnished with an extra special dose of personalization that’s notched up over 48 million views and counting.

Listerine brings out the bold

Agency JWT found that Listerine customers “lived bolder, with more vibrant, active lives”. They brought this to life with five stages in Union Square, New York City, encouraging passers-by to show off their hidden skills. Basketball, beatboxing, karaoke, yoyo tricks and magic, unsuspecting New Yorkers revelled in the unexpected.

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