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.