No other marketing gimmick has taken off so quickly as the now ubiquitous flash mob. For those of you unfamiliar, a flash mob is a sudden public assembly of people to perform an unusual and absurd act for a short period of time, before dispersing back into the general population. The participants of flash mobs usually rehearse beforehand and arrange specific meeting places and times via social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, email, or text message. Initially flash mobs began as a form of cultural satire and comedic relief from the everyday. Lately however, corporations are catching on to the flash mob phenomenon and using it to their advantage.
The first notable flash mob experience to reach a widespread audience is that of English dj Fatboy Slim’s music video for his smash hit “Praise You.” The video was shot by acclaimed avant-garde director Spike Jonze (who also happens to appear in the video as well), and features a fictional dance group coined the “Torrance Community Dance Group” performing a group dance to the track outside of a movie theater in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The video became so popular that the dance troupe put on another performance to the song at the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, as well as winning several awards for the music video itself.
Throughout the first ten years of the 2000s, the flash mob grew in popularity and size. Today flash mobs are done as a way to gain political attention (e.g. Brussels Parliament), give voice to a notable cause (e.g. anti-bullying campaign), or even to surprise a celebrity (e.g. Oprah final season kick-off). Most notable however, is the use of flash mobs by large corporations and businesses as a form of advertising. In the UK in 2009, T-Mobile released a commercial of a flash mob experience at the Liverpool Street train station, with bystanders recording the experience on their phones to send to friends and family, and the tagline “Life’s for Sharing.” In February of this year, Brussels-based fashion PR company Villa Eugenie staged a flash mob for design label Moncler Grenoble in New York’s Grand Central Station during New York Fashion Week, with all the dancers sporting items from the Moncler line. Even the absence of a flash mob can be used as an advertisement, like this funny and popular AT&T commercial of a flash mob gone wrong.
Now although the idea of flash mobs as marketing tools is becoming more popular, some would argue that the audience reached by a performance is quite miniscule, especially for large international conglomerates. In actuality the flash mob has become more useful as a PR tool than as an advertising tool, given that a noteworthy flash mob experience can capture television news coverage, print coverage, and perhaps go viral over the internet. Whether for an event, a company, or charitable cause, the flash mob has become the new instrument for the 21st century for a cheap and effective buzz-generator.