Flash Mobs – A Commercial and Political Activity

You can do something silly, interesting or daring and get attention for it. This is called a stunt, and stunts have been around forever. You’ve probably been involved in some, big or small. Karaoke is a stunt. Evel Knievel jumping Snake River Canyon is a stunt. Doing a track-stand on your fixie at the traffic lights is a stunt. Group dancing in an unexpected place is a stunt.

If a company organizes a stunt the bar is much higher than if a individuals self-organize. In her student days my wife and her dancer friends jumped up on the bar at the Buckaroo tavern and danced to Abba’s Waterloo. If this was a paid activity by Budweiser it wouldn’t be as impressive. [She says the barman couldn’t find Dancing Queen.]

While walking around Chinatown in Seattle a couple of years ago I passed a group of teens dressed in amazing bright-colored costumes, like wearing Halloween fancy dress out of season but with more attention to detail. They looked like cartoon characters. Back at my office I could see them out of the window, so I pointed them out asked a couple of colleagues what was going on. One guy told me they were Cosplayers dressing up as their favorite anime characters, a practice that had been going on in Japan for years.

Heading to Google, I looked up Cosplay and found a video of a flash mob that had Japanese Cosplayers dancing on a street. Halfway through the performance a cop shows up and the dancers run off, scared of falling afoul of Japanese law.

The original article I read is still online but the video has been taken off YouTube. There’s a similar video with the same crew, music and dance but without the “Mob Flees with Arrival of Cop” punchline here:


Their choice of music was interesting. This wasn’t a hit single but the dance in the outgoing credits of a TV show. The dancers are honoring the show they saw as kids by dressing up as the characters and dancing the dance in a group in public. As the author of the original article says, “… it took a huge amount of guts for these law-abiding Japanese citizens to decide to do this without permission.”

I watched and I was charmed.

Fast-forward a couple of years and a friend of mine sent out a link to the video of a flashmob she participated in to honor Michael Jackson after his death. As I watched it, the title of the video caught my eye: “OFFICIAL Michael Jackson Tribute Seattle Flash Mob”:



“OFFICIAL” video? In my naivety I thought there was nothing official about this, that it was a bunch of folks honoring MJ and anyone could record a video. So I looked a little closer. There are multiple cameras filming the event. In the video description it says this is the “Official coverage of Seattle’s Michael Jackson Flash Mob.” They have their own official site. It is the site of an events company. An events company is behind these flash mobs? The charm is going.



One company with a lot to gain is T-Mobile. The flash mob video with the most hits on YouTube appears to be one of theirs:



This is an excellent performance in a very public place – a London train station. There are so many dancers that they outnumber the commuters. There are multiple cameras so they can cut the video to make it more exciting. It is for commercial activity, of course, to advertise T-Mobile. This makes great sense because what do people do when they see a stunt like this? They call their friends to tell them about it or take a photo or video with their phone. The advert cuts in shots of people using their phones.

There is an element of deception here. The public in the train station don’t see the T-Mobile connection. They are telling their friends about the awesome crowd dance scene, not about the advertizing stunt. They don’t see that there’s a money connection here.

The ad has been rewarded with fourteen million views.



In my Inbox this morning came my daily Der Spiegel International Newsletter, and with it this article on using flash mobs as a tool for industrial action. Retail workers loaded their shopping carts with as many cheap items as they could fit and then held up the lines at the checkout. Once the totals had been rung up they left their carts there and walked out. The union that organized this claimed that conventional industrial action didn’t work.

If the shopping carts were left by aggrieved shoppers letting off steam it would be a great story. Done by a union it looks like sabotage.

As I think this through I see that a ‘flash mob’ is just an fancy new name for an old activity. French truckers have been blocking freeways with their trucks as a form of industrial action for decades, a flash mob organized over CB radio. The internet might make it easier to organize a crowd and to self-promote with video, but a lot of these are underwritten by commercial or political organizations.


Self-Organized Political Activity?

A week or so ago there seems to be a self-organized protest against Angela Merkel. Someone wrote graffiti on a Merkel poster titled The Chancellor is Coming saying Everyone says “Yeaahh”.



As the story goes this photo was posted on flickr, the slogan became popular and a flash mob organized over a few web sites to chant “Yeah” at the end of each Merkel sentence at public rallies. If a political  organization is behind this they’re hiding it well. Because it is self-organized, it is a far more interesting and sympathetic story than the one of the union people jamming checkouts with their shopping carts. (And you can buy the t-shirt).

Now when I see a flash mob I wonder who is behind it and what they hope to gain. Is it sabotage, is it advertising or is it art?


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