On ‘The Fun Theory’ and Pseudoscience

I’ve had this video sent to me three times this week, which was enough to prompt a reply that I’ll share with you.

On a very basic level, this video is nice. To disrupt the mundane with something that makes people smile is great, but that’s where the good in this video stops. If that was the ultimate aim of this video, I’d give it a big thumbs and share it with enthusiasm, but it’s not as simple as that.

“We believe that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better is by making it fun to do.”

That’s rubbish, and I’ll explain why.

I’m interested in changing people’s behaviour for the better, so I willingly watched the video and was presented with the ‘conclusion’ that “66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator. Fun can obviously change things for the better.” – at the point in the film where this fact is presented, the soundtrack switches from what sounded unsurprisingly like cats walking along a piano (very annoying) to actual piano music that was pleasant to listen to. And at the end of the film, when the tuneless sound of people walking on a piano has been adequately covered up, the occasional footage of the floor shows how filthy it became after just a single day. There is a reason tube station floors aren’t white.

Why this video is rubbish

If this was an actual experiment in behaviour change, rather than a pseudo-scientific exercise in brand marketing, the following tests would have been important:

  1. What happens after 1 week of piano stairs?
    • Do regular commuters still ‘play’ every day? (I suspect not)
    • What state is the floor in? (I suspect filthy and depressing)
  2. Same questions after 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year
    •  I suspect the results will get continually worse
  3. What happens if this is applied to the stairs at every station
    • Again, I expect decline in use. Possibly below the original baseline.

When a child first discovers a piano, and tries to play, it is endearing to watch. But ask yourself, how long can you listen to that child plonk up and down the keys before it starts to grate. You can try it out now, just loop the video from 0:42 to 1:00, turn up the volume and imagine listening to this on your commute to work, every, single, day. Would it make you more likely to take the stairs? I think it would drive people insane. It wouldn’t be long before the social outrage at the diabolical noise would actually discourage people from taking the stairs. Escalator users would soon be sighing and tutting at the person rushing down the steps to catch their train.

Now imagine yourself using these stairs soon after any of the following:

  1. Bereavement
  2. Redundancy
  3. Divorce

How fun is The Fun Theory sounding right now?

What this video shows is not fun creating change, but the joy of the novel. I’m not opposed to the joy of the novel, and would definitely have taken the piano stairs myself. But as someone who usually takes the stairs, that ‘solution’ is more likely to make me take the escalator in the long run. This is not science, and this is not behaviour change. If anything it’s a new excuse for people who can now blame the mundanity of non-piano stairs each time they take the escalator going forward.

The real goal of this video:

For you to make the subconscious link between the Volkswagen logo and the word Fun. That’s all it is designed to do.

By making the VW logo secondary in the campaign it becomes harder for you to realise you’ve been sent an advert until it is too late and you’ve watched the whole thing, but the clues are there – even the typography adheres to the brand guidelines. As a marketer, I’d say it’s genius. But as a human being, I think this is depressing.

Some words I’d like to see VW live up to:

“This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”  src

Maybe, just maybe, if VW actually want to show they care about “change for the better”, it would be easier to NOT SPEND MILLIONS OF POUNDS LOBBYING AGAINST COMMITMENTS TO CUT GREENHOUSE GAS EMMISSIONS, than turning some stairs into a piano and presenting it as science.

Further reading:

If you’re interested in VW’s real commitment to change try: vwdarkside.com
If you’re interested in real behaviour change:  valuesandframes.org

If you just like disrupting the mundanity of the day-to-day, it doesn’t need corporate sponsorship:

If graffiti changed anything...

What would I suggest instead of piano stairs?

If I was running an experiment tasked with encouraging people to walk instead of taking the escalator, I’d slow the speed of the escalator down to a quarter of it’s standard speed. Maybe even slower. You could measure walking-rate against speed across a high enough volume of routes for a long enough period of time to find an optimum speed based on robust science. I reckon that would get people walking, and possibly keep them walking too. Either they’d choose the escalator, then walk if it’s too slow for them, or just switch to the stairs altogether. It wouldn’t make a fun video though, so it’s unlikely the Volkswagen marketing budget would be used to encourage the 17 million+ views the piano stairs idea has had.

On giving up TV, but not moving images

TV bad, but cinema good?

I’ve given up TV for almost all the situations I can control, including those situations where it’s appropriate to excuse myself from watching; that is, with the people who know me well enough not to take offence. But I still watch things you would call films, videos, movies or whatnot. So I thought I’d write a piece about the things I still watch and why I think they are acceptable despite taking a personal stand against television.

The exceptions that define the rule…

iPlayer vs. TV

Long live AD-FREE socially-funded independent broadcasting and entertainment. The Beeb will never be completely free from bias, and it will always attract a certain type of journalist, but on the whole I wouldn’t want to be without it. iPlayer lets you watch quality content on demand. I’m not saying everything on iPlayer is quality, or that you should sit down with the intention of watching something, anything, on iPlayer. But if there’s something good on, then make the most of this very special service. The recent series of Sherlock was well worth watching. I also enjoy Only Connect. And their documentaries are a starting point for learning. With the caveat that if you’ve ever watched a documentary on any subject you know well, you’ll know how lightly they scratch the surface.

On the whole, I’ve no objection to iPlayer and watch it maybe once a week.

Cinema vs. TV

Cinema has socialising built right in. It’s an actual shared experience where the room full of people shape your experience of the story told on screen. You make a communal decision to watch something, which helps break the filter bubble; and sometimes you end watching things you really wouldn’t choose to – like Date Night, damnit! Cinema is better than most TV watching because you choose a particular film, then go to the cinema – in that order.

Most importantly, films are stories. And sharing stories is absolutely fundamental to human nature. Films are a great way to tell exceptional, brilliant, inspiring and challenging stories and while I dislike TV, I’d never be without stories. This differs from TV shows that often begin with a great story, then degrade into the cycle of ever-declining-quality but never-ending-story mode; because the goal of a TV show is to stay on the air to keep selling ad space.

A film worth watching tells a complete story, mostly in one part. But like TV shows, when films are corrupted by advertising or created with the sole purpose of sales, you get the never-ending series of ever-declining-quality; a bit like James Bond, or The Lion King 2. I am certain that The Lion King 2 was not made with the primary purpose of telling a brilliant story.

So cinema is great, because great films are great and cinema makes them better for being social, and prompting active rather than passive consumption. It’s a valid business model to pay the artists without corrupting our minds any more than we have to. And you can always arrive a bit late to miss the ads.

Films on TV are OK, but it’s a mistake to think that films funded by advertising rather than purchase come at no cost. I’d rather pay with my money than my mind.

DVDs vs. TV

See the same points about storytelling described for films above. DVDs are also good for watching the best TV shows on your own timetable without giving your eye-balls to advertisers. Though watch out for the TV shows that deliberately drag out the story with the sole purpose of extending sales. Just because season 1 is excellent doesn’t mean you have to keep watching until season 5. If season 5 is mediocre, stop immediately; life is too short. There are enough truly brilliant films to watch instead.

If storytellers would stick to choosing the format that can best tell their particular story, it would be a better state of affairs than the current situation where stories are fabricated endlessly to fill-out the predetermined format. Today, the 12 episodes of a new season for a TV show will be scheduled with a TV station while the plot is still being written. That’s not storytelling, it’s content marketing. Hopefully the technological developments moving people away from scheduled TV to on-demand viewing will help address this issue, which also applies to pre-scheduled news, but that’s another article for another day…

Streaming Films vs. TV

Sometimes I stream films too. To date I’ve always paid to rent the film rather than paid to download and keep it. All the same arguments used in favour of DVDs apply.

YouTube vs. TV

Sadly, this is a channel destined to be riddled with advertising, which it’s not far off already. But, in comparison with TV, it’s a fascinating social experiment; an almost uncensored somewhat democratic free-for-all where the ideas that would never make it past the committee of common sense not only see the light of day, but take on a life and meaning of their own as they travel around the world.

By all means, watch and forward videos of sneezing pandas. But think twice about sharing adverts, and be conscious of the adverts sent to you by friends; you have make a deliberate mental effort to separate your friend from the advertiser who wants you to make the mental connection between friendship and the product they peddle.

Someone on YouTube taught me how to clean the throttle valve on my car better than my Haynes manual; I’d have been waiting a long time for that to come on TV.

So I still watch things on YouTube, sometimes.

TED (Plus TEDX, The Do Lectures and similar) vs. TV

TED have summed this up succinctly themselves: ‘Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world’. Pheebs and I have watched a few of these lectures while we eat dinner. I’ve watched a few more on my own at other times. Allow yourself to consider a couple of new ideas and fields you’ve never spent time with. These videos are a springboard to a whole world of ideas that will rarely make it onto scheduled television, because it’s not in the commercial interest of advertisers.

This, for example is a hugely useful piece of knowledge that wouldn’t sit well with advertisers: The paradox of choice.

And this talk is better than anything that will make it onto scheduled TV this year: How the human family can do better.

It doesn’t need HD, surround sound, or 3D glasses. It’s an inspiring story told as urgently as it should be. It would not have been better for a big budget six season TV series, with product placements, celebrity cameos or a special edition DVD box-set. It’s 20 minutes of talking with a few pictures, and it will make you want to be a better person.

More thoughts on TV to follow soon.