How Corporations Co-opted the “Flash Mob”

Photo Credit: Elena Dijour /

September 16, 2013

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And God said, “Let there be co-option.” Corporations are currently hiring flash mobs for marketing purposes. It was inevitable. Those rehearsed gatherings of fake spontaneity in public places were fun for the sake of fun — mostly featuring musical instruments, singing, and dancing –- that served as magnets for inadvertent audiences with smartphone cameras, helping to push such heartwarming events into viral cyberspace.

Trending is the new fad. What were once free flash mobs have been blossoming into an industry. Many companies are now producing flash-mob happenings, charging from $2,000 to $4,000, even as much $10,000. In fact, last year at a conference of pharmaceutical executives in Las Vegas, Flash Mob America was paid $35,000, in the hope, said Elizabeth Marshall — vice president of marketing for Decision Resources Group, which organized the confab — that such a happening would “get our clients excited so that they would tweet or discuss it on LinkedIn.” Ask your doctor if flash mobs are right for you.

Flash Mob America was launched in 2009 after a non-commercial group of friends choreographed a memorial tribute to Michael Jackson that resulted in a plethora of requests to actually hire flash mobs. Co-founder Staci Lawrence admitted, “We never intended to set up a business, but we weren’t going to deny the demand for it.” The participants’ enthusiasm was enhanced because suddenly they had jobs, performing for the Red Cross, GLAAD, and Oscar Mayer. Upcoming gigs include a bar mitzvah and a marriage proposal.

Another firm, Big Hit Flash Mobs, have had clients ranging from JP Morgan Chase to Redbook to Nashville’s Opryland Hotel. “By provide (sic) such a spectacle,” they promise, “you’re activating your audience and creating a sensation that will spread beyond those in the attendance.” Their promo video is the IBM World Leadership Conference flash mob, all wearing orange T-shirts and dancing to a rap soundtrack. Incidentally, while one of the women does a solo dance, one of the men in the background clearly makes momentary masturbatory motions.

Among their FAQ and answers: “ How long? 2-5 minutes, with most being in the 3-4 minute range. If it is longer than that, you lose the ‘flash’ part of a flash mob.” “ How big? 15-30 people, with most being 20-25. If it any smaller than that, you lose the ‘mob’ part of a flash mob.” And a warning: “While we’ve got a rebellious streak, on the extremely rare occasion law enforcement authorities interrupt a flash mob, Big Hit will always follows (sic) their instructions.”

Corporations are using the charm of a flash mob to “get a halo effect by being associated with it,” says Bill Wasik, who is credited with creating the first flash mob in 2003. However, there are predecessors from decades ago who acted in the spirit of the flash-mob phenomenon-to-be, but without that label, and not coordinated via cellphones and social media. Two particular forerunners were each an all-night, free-form radio personality on a station in New York City.

One was the late Jean Shepherd on WOR-AM. If you woke up one night at 3 a.m., and your radio was still on, he might well have been talking about how you would try to explain the function of an amusement park to visitors from Venus. He was on air from 1 a.m. to 5:30 every night, mixing childhood reminiscence with contemporary critiques, peppered with characters such as the man who could taste an ice cube and tell you the brand name of the refrigerator it came from and the year of its manufacture.

Copyright: AlterNet