From Gutenberg to the Flash Mob – Marketing Innovation at its Finest

For centuries, marketers have tried to capture consumers’ attention. Some of the earliest ways were Gutenberg’s mass production of flyers and brochures (1450), then the emergence of magazines (1730s), advertising including billboards (1800s), radio and electronic computers in the 1900s and late 1900s, e-commerce in the ‘70s, and the ever-popular guerilla marketing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Today, much of these very early techniques are still being used, but in less “traditional ways.” We’re now in the era of what is called “integrated marketing,” borrowing from many of these tactics to create a worthy campaign for our clients.

But have these really changed, and how?

One of the most popular marketing innovation tools that remains is the flash mob. What is it that is so appealing about these for marketers and consumers alike?

The Joy of Surprise

In our era where it’s easy to reach for our smartphones and walk and text without looking up, there is still something special about seeing something nicely unexpected and taken out of our day-to-day routines. According to Flash Mob America New York with more than 8,000 members, “We LOVE to create JOY by surprising people! We are looking for like-minded people who love to challenge themselves, get up and dance (even if they’ve never danced before!), have a great time and meet new people.”

Attention & Awareness

It’s no surprise that when flash mob participants gather, people take notice. And when organized on behalf of a brand looking to gain consumer awareness, this attention can often result in sales leads or new website traffic.  The consumers participating certainly also have a motive – they want to be noticed.  Whether it’s just a fun thing or for a cause, it’s something the participants feel is worthy of taking the time to do.


Who says you need intimacy for that special moment to be truly special? One New Yorker made it clear that he didn’t when he called on a flash mob to help him propose in Washington Square Park. Other flash mob moments have included European Transport Company’s “Better Bus Ride” campaign where they sang “Happy Birthday” to the very surprised and delighted bus driver in Copenhagen.


To Champion a Cause

Flash mobs are a great way to help champion a cause.  For example, in support of Haiti’s Earthquake Relief Fund, Flash Mob America organized a Michael Jackson-themed dance party to raise money for the fund.


Take a look at some of the most “historic” Flash Mobs:

“The First”: The first marketing-related flash mob was organized in 2003 by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine. While his first try was unsuccessful after the retail store where he planned to host it was told about it in advance, he successfully had more than 130 people take to the ninth floor rug department of Macy’s and stand around an expensive rug and note they were shopping for a “love rug” and were making their purchase decisions as a group, if asked.

Oprah’s Kick-off Dance Party with the Black-Eyed Peas: To celebrate her 24th season and one of the most memorable flash mobs broadcasted to the public, more than 20,000 people surprised Oprah with a piece choreographed to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”


Frozen Grand Central: In 2008, Improv Everywhere started one of the most viral flash mobs (more than 32 million YouTube views), with more than 200 people who froze together at the exact same moment at Grand Central Station in New York City. The group also inspired the “No Pants Subway Ride” which happens yearly and consumers are invited to take to the transit in their skivvies.

World’s Largest Pillow Fight: Prompting local pillow fights across the country thereafter, Guinness World Records officiated the world’s largest pillow fight with 10,000 attendees at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta.


So what it is that still drives our fascination with this marketing innovation?  At the end of the day, it’s simply about reaching and engaging our target audience in an interesting way, which is really what we should always be thinking about in order to be true marketing innovators.

Image Source: Flash Mob America (New York).

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