Salon: Corporations Co-opted the Flash Mob

Corporations co-opted the flash mob

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.

Shepherd would orchestrate his colorful tales and stream-of-conscious ramblings with music ranging from “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to Bessie Smith singing “Empty Bed Blues.” He shared philosophical insights like “Life is a series of resolutions and relapses. One of his regular features was “hurling invectives.” He would instruct listeners to put the radio on a windowsill. Then he would whisper, “Now turn the volume all the way up,” and then he’d yell something thatsoundedominous — “Shut up, you filthy pragmatist” — for the rest of the neighborhood to wonder whose family was quarreling with such unusual profanity.

Although Shepherd’s ideas were often stolen by comedians, sitcoms and movies, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky asked him for permission –- granted — to use a variation of hurling invectives for his 1976 classic film, Network,in a pivotal scene where a TV newscaster, having a nervous breakdown, tells his audience, “Get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.’” Which is exactly what his viewers proceeded to do.

In August 1956, WOR station manager Bob Leder complained that Shepherd didn’t play enough music and therefore was “not commercial.” Leder walked into the studio in the middle of Shepherd’s show and insisted, “You’ll play music tonight or you’re gonna leave.” Shepherd refused to obey that ultimatum, and he was fired — yanked right off the air – but he was soon re-hired, and it was agreed that he wasn’t a disc jockey after all.

But he was about to be fired again because he lacked sponsors. Moreover, he urged his listeners to buy Sweetheart Soap, which wasn’t a sponsor. He also requested his listeners to partake in a “mill-in” to protest his dismissal. All they had to do was mill around at an empty lot in downtown Manhattan where a burned-out Wanamaker department-store building used to be.

Police arrived at the gathering and asked what was going on. “Just milling around” was a common response. It wasn’t against the law. Someone admitted that they were all “waiting for Shepherd.” Then, if a newcomer looked puzzled, the cops would ask, “Are you waiting for Shepherd?” If the reply was “Yes,” the newcomer would be directed toward the crowd. Eventually, four hundred individuals showed up.

Shepherd himself finally appeared. After he delivered a critique of commercialism, the crowd calmly dispersed, and the New York Times described the mill-in as a “passive protest.” It had taken place on a Sunday afternoon, and the next day was supposed to be Shepherd’s last show, but he was re-hired again when Sweetheart Soap volunteered to sponsor his show.

The other pre-flash-mob broadcaster was Bob Fass. Like Shepherd, he is extemporaneous and mischievous. Unlike Shepherd, he has guests, converses with listeners and presents live music on his show, Radio Unnamable (also the title of a prize-winning documentary about Fass and WBAI).

In February 1967, instead of a mill-in, Fass wanted to arrange a Fly-in –- a huge party at Kennedy International Airport. (These days, Big Hit Flash Mobs must inform clients, “We can’t do events at airports unless you have special access to the TSA, airline or airport operator.”)

Fass recalls, “The Fly-in was definitely comparable to a flash mob, but it wasn’t that secret. We announced it on the air every day for a week. People called up and were told flowers and guitars and things of that sort. We played a lot of songs about airplanes and flying, with people calling and saying that they would be there.

“And suddenly at midnight — then the temperature was below zero, really a cold night – all these people showed up, they came like six to a car, just showed up, and there they were. It was something quite energizing about all these people seeing all these other people, because they knew it hadn’t been announced any place but the radio program that they were all listening to. And somehow the cultural community and community of interests were intent on recognizing themselves.”

The police estimated that seven thousand people were there, including many whose flights had been canceled; all of the Southwest flights were canceled due to a computer glitch. At one point, an undercover cop passed a joint to a teenager and then arrested her for being entrapped without a license. Fass tried in vain to convince the police to let her go. The Fly-in lasted for a few hours, but it had turned into a bummer because of the bust. Ultimately, she was given a suspended sentence.

Let us conclude with a pair of political flash mobs.

A November 2008 dispatch from Global Voices was headlined “Brazil: Flash mob protest against Digital Crimes Bill.” The article stated that “Brazilian bloggers and netizens took to the streets of Sao Paulo to protest against the Digital Crimes Bill, which typifies the cyber-crimes punishable by law and stipulates penalties accordingly. They claim the law has so many flaws that, instead of punishing real criminals, it might end up deeming as crime trivial conduct when searching the Internet.”

And an August 2013 report from WTF: Before It’s News was headlined “Flash Mob of Protests: ‘No War With Syria’ Rallies Planned in Over 70 Cities for Saturday, 8/31.” The article stated that “A new campaign has been started to help coordinate worldwide protests against the acceleration of the war in Syria by the corporate military-industrial complex. Protests are already planned in over 70 cities worldwide for Saturday, August 31. It’s almost like the flash mob version of a global anti-war protest.”

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