Jane Margolies | Report

The Laugh Bug

With much fanfare, the Swedish division of Volkswagen recently declared the outcome of its Fun Theory innovation challenge. The announcement took place at a real news conference, held in an actual Volkswagen showroom in Stockholm, with the grand-prize winner, American Kevin Richardson, receiving a bona fide check in the amount of 25,000 SEK (about $3,500) for his proposal to reward drivers who stick to the speed limit by giving them a chance to win a lottery jackpot. Also at the press conference were the contest judges, who had chosen Richardson’s concept from among entries submitted online at thefuntheory.com, along with assorted experts who participated in a panel discussion on the issue the car company raised with its contest: whether you can get people to do the right thing by making that thing enjoyable to do. The press event was the latest chapter in Volkswagen’s Fun Theory campaign, launched this past fall to encourage consumers to associate the company’s BlueMotion turbo-diesel vehicles with the idea of enjoyment — with almost all of the campaign taking place not in the “real world” but the virtual realm of the internet.

I’ve been following the campaign from afar since early October, tipped off by an artist friend who’d emailed me a link to a YouTube posting of Volkswagen’s brilliant Piano Staircase video, which had recently been released. Created by the Swedish division’s ad agency, DDB Stockholm, and filmed mostly in Stockholm’s Odenplan subway station, the clip shows how people were enticed to walk up a flight of stairs, rather than ride an escalator, after the steps were turned into giant plinking piano keys. The video became a social-media hit — by December it topped Unruly Media’s Viral Video Chart, with the highest number of blog posts and tweets of any video in history.

The first time I watched, I didn’t make the BlueMotion connection (the video simply flashes “an initiative of VW” at the end). I just got caught up in the drama and playfulness of the under-two-minute video and the inventiveness of the musical staircase, which, I later learned, consisted of steel plates custom-fitted to the subway-station steps and covered in white and black adhesive-backed vinyl; the plates were rigged to a PIC controller, allowing footstep-triggered signals to be converted to sounds amplified on speakers. I remembered the scene in the movie Big in which Tom Hanks plays "Heart and Soul" by jumping on the jumbo floor keyboard in FAO Schwarz — and was seized with the urge to hop on a plane to Sweden so I could do-re-mi up the stairs myself.

Good thing I didn’t book my tickets. As I tracked The Fun Theory efforts — there were two other videos, one featuring a park garbage bin that makes a falling-down-the-well sound when trash is tossed in (thanks to hidden motion sensors hooked up to an MP3 player and battery-powered speakers), and another with a recycling receptacle-cum-arcade game with a lit-up scoreboard showing points accumulated when bottles are deposited — I learned that the design innovations appearing in the videos don’t really exist. Or at least don’t anymore. DDB set them up only as long as it took to film the videos, then dismantled them. They live on via the internet — thefuntheory.com has gotten more than 1.3 million hits, from 200 different countries, according to the company.

Call me old school (or maybe just gullible), but I was crushed that The Fun Theory was a virtual campaign and not a bricks-and-mortar program of public-works projects. True, Volkswagen is in the business of making and selling cars. But I thought if the company was really interested in changing the world for the better, as it indicates on thefuntheory.com, couldn’t it have permanently installed the staircase, trash receptacle and arcade game so that people day in and day out would be persuaded to climb stairs, clean up after themselves and recycle — rather than just watch viral videos on their computers?

Andreas Dahlqvist, executive creative director and managing partner at DDB and one of those involved in the campaign, told me that government and regulatory obstacles stood in the way of permanently installing the Piano Staircase, and I certainly don’t doubt that. And it’s also true that if those musical stairs were put in place for good, they’d have to be constructed in a more durable way to withstand constant daily use. Besides, how effective would such contraptions be in the long run, after the novelty wore off?

At any rate, Volkswagen had another participatory trick up its sleeve: The Fun Theory contest, in which it invited people to submit their own design innovations to thefuntheory.com. And as entries began to pour in and get posted on the website — there were 700 in all, from as far away as Brazil and the Philippines — I had to admit that the virtual campaign had certainly galvanized a lot of people. A Peruvian entrant suggested installing step machines at bus stops to get people to exercise while they wait. A German came up with a floor mat that generates music so that people would wipe their shoes at the door. I found it comforting to know that folks all over the world are preoccupied with the same pesky problems — dog owners who don’t scoop up after their pets, kids who forget to wash their hands or hang up their clothes — and had been moved to offer specific, sometimes ingenious ideas for making the world a cleaner, greener, safer, more civilized place. After DDB and Volkswagen winnowed the entries down to 11 semifinalists, a jury composed of an environmentalist, a comedian, a volunteer coordinator and a Volkswagen product manager unanimously selected Kevin Richardson’s “Speed Camera Lottery” as the winner.

Richardson, a senior producer at Nickelodeon Kids and Family Games Group, and a father of three, said in a phone interview that he was motivated to enter the contest after a series of car accidents involving children in and around his hometown in the San Francisco Bay area. He’d become aware of The Fun Theory campaign when colleagues circulated the Volkswagen videos via email, and the clips got him thinking about how “un-fun most of daily life is” and how he might offer a solution to the problem of reckless driving. He proposed posting cameras along roads to snap photos of car registration numbers — drivers who comply with the law would automatically be entered in a lottery, with the jackpot money coming from fines paid by those caught speeding. Richardson submitted his proposal in the form of a concept sketch and description, and from these DDG created a video. “I was blown away,” said Richardson, who was flown to Stockholm by Volkswagen to receive his award and saw the video for the first time at the press event.

The total cost of the campaign so far has been around $140,000, according to the car company — certainly far less than what a typical ad campaign involving TV commercials would cost. And the expenditure has certainly paid off. Volkswagen says that traffic to its regular website increased 40 percent, and sales of its BlueMotion cars increased nearly 20 percent, now totaling a fifth of overall Passat sales.

And The Fun Theory might go on. Volkswagen says it’s looking into whether any of the proposals might be implemented — the likeliest being a gaming seat belt proposed by a Swedish contest entrant, according to Marcus Thomasfolk, a VW spokesperson. The video game contained in the buckle would go on only after the belt is fastened, encouraging people to buckle up.

Although the company’s website says it’s “proved” The Fun Theory, social scientists I’ve contacted note that the brief experiments captured on the videos weren’t set up to show anything with certainty, nor is there enough empirical data to draw any real conclusions. Furthermore, the number of hits on a website doesn’t “say enough about how people in real settings would act,” wrote Ari Riabacke, a behavioral specialist who sat on the panel at the news conference, in an email in which he also noted that the simulations showed that people “seem to be attracted by deviating patterns,” or novelty.

Another unproven assertion is whether earnest appeals to peoples’ higher motives are no longer effective as a means of influencing people to do the right thing. Andreas Dahlqvist of DDG said that getting people to change required “finding a new kind of involvement.” The time of “holding a megaphone,” he adds, is over.

Leslie Savan, media critic and author of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever, is not so sure that appeals to higher motives are passé. Nor, she pointed out to me, is humor in advertising anything new — though she herself vastly prefers the “delightful” videos of The Fun Theory campaign to the “infantalizing” television commercials now airing in America, which encourage people to punch each other every time they see a Volkswagen car. Savan, who blogs for TheNation.com about media and politics, says, “For me, this is classically well-done advertising. The question is, Is it deceptive? Most ads are deceptive on some level. But if the cars are not green — and I mean not just in little tweaks, but in a substantial way — then the whole thing is scam-y and disappointing, because it’s so well done.” Although the BlueMotion line is not in and of itself revolutionary, it is part of the broad evolution of diesel vehicles that is resulting in high-mileage, low-emissions cars that are, yes, more fun to drive, thanks to turbo engines.

Thomasfolk said that the company will make reference to The Fun Theory in upcoming ads for the BlueMotion line. “We want to capitalize on the success of the campaign and link it to our models,” he said. Despite the public-service tone of The Fun Theory effort, car sales, after all, are the real point. Added Thomasfolk: “Our aim is not to make the world better but to sell more fuel-efficient cars.”

I really should have known all along.

Posted in: Business, Social Good

Comments [3]

The approach to advertising isn't that new really, Chiat/Day did this for Apple with their 1984 themed commercial, when they introduced the Apple Macintosh personal computer, and did not use the product in the ad. Volkswagon has recognized that we are a culture enslaved by our need for entertainment, and an adoration for the virtual world. This formula has proven to be an effective way to sell cars.
Joshua Nychuk

Kevin here, and the really great news is that the Speed Camera Lottery is now live in Stockholm!
Kevin Richardson

I am amazed at how quickly the world of advertising has changed within the last 15 years, and Volkswagen's new approach certainly is a good example a better (less expensive) way to spread the word through viral media. Definitely a very smart method to make advertising far less labor intensive, and I think that the great wave of social media advertising began with events such as these. This is the reason why so many companies are striving to get consumers involved in some way with their product; because every person who makes a post, tweets, or hash tags something with their product in it, that's another set of eyes who will see their product without costing them a dime. Sure they had the grand prize that was awarded, but it was far better paying that out than printing up billboards to plaster up everywhere.
Russell Cluff

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