Fun for a Change

By Dalton, Aaron | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Fun for a Change


Dalton, Aaron, Stanford Social Innovation Review


Volkswagen plays with Virtue BY AARON DALTON

IN JUNE 2009, people going about their ordinary routines in Stockholm encountered a series of perplexing and - most important - fun diversions. One day, commuters at the Odenplan subway station found that the staircase had been replaced with a musical piano keyboard, replete with sound. Young and old alike abandoned their usual ride on the adjacent escalator to scamper up and down the steps. Couples played duets. Children picked out tunes with their parents. Dedicated soloists hopped up and down, losing track of their destinations. During the one-day test, 66 percent more people than usual chose the stairs over the escalator.

Meanwhile, pedestrians out for a stroll in a municipal park came upon the World's Deepest Rubbish Bin - a trash receptacle with sound effects that made it seem as though items were falling into a deep chasm. Some onlookers circled the container, peering inside to get a glimpse of the mighty crater within. A child eager to hear the sound of falling trash scooped up litter off the ground and threw it in. Apparently she was not alone in her enthusiasm: The acoustically enhanced trash can attracted more than twice as much trash - 158 pounds in total - as a neighboring ordinary bin.

Other passersby came across the Bottle Bank Arcade Machine, whose bunking lights and digital display promised points in exchange for recycling bottles. Nearly 100 Stockholmers "played" the Bottle Bank Arcade by feeding it bottles. Nearby, a lonely conventional bottle bank received only two deposits.

These three curiosities were not random art installations. Instead, they were part of a recent ad campaign to raise interest in Volkswagen's fuel-efficient Une of diesel-powered BlueMotion cars. Volkswagen did not make its involvement with the installments immediately obvious, however. The company instead used videos of citizens interacting with the projects as the centerpiece of its new Fun Theory campaign, which shows that doing the right thing - taking the stairs, reducing litter, recycling bottles, and, presumably, driving an eco-friendly car - can be pleasurable and desirable.

"Normally, if you read ads about this type of car, you hear messages telling you that you must think about climate change or CO2 emissions," says Marcus Thomasfolk, head of communications at Volkswagen Group Sverige AB. "We wanted to go a different way. We thought that if we made something fun, it might be easier to change behaviors."

With advertising agency DDB Stockhohn, Volkswagen first filmed videos of people enjoying the piano staircase, rubbish bin, and bottle bank. It then placed the videos on a Web site (available in both English and Swedish) and cross-posted the videos to YouTube. Within a couple of months, the Fun Theory videos had gone viral: The YouTube videos garnered some 13 million views, and the Web site attracted 940,000 visitors from around the world. The piano staircase video proved particularly popular, winning 10 million views all its own and achieving renown as the most shared film in the history of the Internet.

WIRED TO PLAY

Volkswagen and DDB are the first to admit that they are not social scientists, and their so-called Fun Theory is not based on the rigorous tests of true scientific theories. At the same time, however, the zany project rests on sound scientific principles.

"There is lots of research showing that the search for fun and novelty is one of the strongest intrinsic aspects of human nature," says Richard M. Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester whose research focuses on human motivation. "I like the Fun Theory - even if it isn't really a scientific theory - because it taps into this wonderful source of motivation and demonstrates its gravitational pull." He adds that attempts to encourage socially desirable behaviors don't give fun enough attention.

Nevertheless, a few public health programs do harness the power of fun to make good behaviors more palatable, says Mark Cullen, chief of internal medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. …

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