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Why Did Gangnam Style Go Viral?
Gangnam Style by South Korean KPOP artist PSY is on its way to 1 billion YouTube views (a feat that is certainly making a pretty penny for the artist). There is no doubt about it: this video is popular. How popular? Aside from the impressive YouTube stats, PSY has now performed the song in many impressive venues including Madison Square Garden and The Today Show. He’s also been featured in Samsung advertising material and his video won Best Video at the MTV Europe Music Awards. But that is nothing when you consider the amount of parodies because you know something has truly reached the upper echelons of pop culture when it gets parodied (and parodied and parodied—even the North Korean government made a spoof). The question is, why did Gangnam Style go viral?
This week the DailyTekk Think Tank takes a stab at answering just that. What do you think?
It’s No Surprise—The Label Planned Well
The Gangnam Style video’s surprise leap into the ranks of dance videos gone viral, really isn’t a surprise at all. On the surface, the global love affair with the video featuring a little-known South Korean pop artist seems confounding. To the typical viewer, it’s just a regular guy dancing around and having fun along with a group of professional dancers. the music has a playful beat and the artist and dancers sport splashy, vibrant costumes. Fun to watch, but not really a reason for a viral venture.
In my opinion, the choreographers did an exceptional job keeping the “story” moving along. The dancers employ simple moves that people of any age can imitate and reproduce – whether at a party or just dancing around at home. The lively atmosphere put forth by the music and dancing invites viewers to get up and join the dancers. But that’s not the whole story. A little research into the Asian pop culture in South Korea reveals that the label sponsoring the artist and video planned their entrance into the viral ranks before releasing their hit. They built a platform through YouTube before they released the video — a platform they could use to push their content to a mass of already loyal subscribers. Americans may not realize this, but the video features a number of very popular South Korean celebrities, causing a buzz on the other side of the world that made the American pop culture aficionados stand up and pay attention.
So, why did Gangnam Style go viral and do it in a big way? Careful research, clever use of famous celebs, and incredible marketing. It didn’t “just happen” by chance. They hooked us and we bit—hook, line, and Gangnam.
Gangnam Style Had The Right Fuel (But There’s No Viral Formula)
Cute animals, schadenfreude, and voyeurism: that’s the fuel that drives the viral Internet. If the web has proven anything, it’s that budget and professional production are not the key ingredients, and a room full of marketing executives is a near-guarantee of failure. Creating viral content is no more a formula than making a hit TV show, the perfect mixed drink, or a pop sensation. Anyone who tells you they can create something that will go viral is almost always counting their time in 10-minute increments and billing it back to you. The rest of us just try to make things people like. I’d rather spend time making something good than trying to make something viral.
Duplication Is Futile
Viral videos are marketing magic delivered in a pot of gold, by a unicorn – once in a lifetime gifts bestowed upon unsuspecting brands or private users. Any attempt to duplicate is futile. Commercial series that went viral include Isaiah Mustafa’s “Old Spice Guy”, or the E*TRADE baby – both have attempted to carry on their viral franchise minus key ingredients (a chiseled athlete and a doe-eyed cutie) without success. They lacked the spark of the original versions, and therefore came across as forced and in-genuine. User-generated viral content such as the recent “S%*t Girls Say” or anything from Jenna Marbles, have acquired a following and remain popular as an online series – for now. But they too will soon join the ranks of “Fred” and every parody of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, as viral videos or series that have had their moment. “Gangnam Style” will soon meet the same fate, and it’s clear the downward spiral has already been set in motion. It’s reached the pinnacle of popularity worldwide by knocking the Beibs off his tween-built pedestal and now has nowhere else to climb. The magic of “Gangnam Style” is the fact that it’s a legitimate, non-comedic music video in a foreign country. Psy not only takes himself seriously, but is regarded as a type of sex symbol – like a Korean Pit Bull. While I can’t speak to cultural feelings outside the U.S., Psy’s popularity here was built on a really catchy tune and a semi-ridiculous video accompaniment that includes a Macarena-esk dance sequence, lead by a portly pop star in a pastel suit. These factors cause us to laugh both with him and at him as we bust a move. While I’m sure all eyes and ears will be tuned into Psy’s sophomore attempt to carry on his global success, I’m even more sure the forced attempt to continue his reign will fall flat.
So I say to marketers looking to build the next great viral video—don’t bother. The return on investment for viral ambitions is often low. Just keep it fresh, funny and include a little edge. At least you’ll have a successful ad your brand can be proud of—even if the viral video fairy doesn’t pay you a visit.
It’s The Best of All Worlds (And Even I Can Do The Dance)
I first heard the song on the radio and thought it was great but when I was shown the video all became clear. Shows like Glee have demonstrated the oddly hypnotic nature of very bright colours, combined with a current music style. The most impressive thing here is that they managed to produce arguably the best of all worlds. A great song, a fun video, a dance even I can do (and recently did on stage in South Korea) and a range of colours that make Bollywood look rather dull, this is all combined with a theme that is novel.
Can someone else do it, of course they can. The difficulty will be making sure that the basics of why this song is a success (the beat, the catchy chorus, the cheekiness of the video and the eye-popping contrasts of colours) are combined with a theme which is as new to us as the concept of the lives of the superrich in Seoul’s premier district.
There Is Indeed a Formula…
Despite the fact that every brand dreams of creating a viral video, it’s very difficult to create a formula for it. Difficult, but not impossible, as YG Entertainment the label behind Gangnam Style has demonstrated. These guys left nothing to chance. They created a ready built audience from which to seed the video; they used a topical conversation point – the wealthy neighborhood in Seoul – to create buzz; they included celebrity influencers in the video, who each had their own existing community of followers, and they made the song – and of course the dance moves – novel and catchy. The video was certainly packaged to appeal to mainstream media, who sparked the true “viral” movement. The controversy around Psy’s “original” dance moves, the celebrity support on social media, and (of course) the spoof videos all increased the life of the Gangnam trend. There are lessons for all of us in the Gangnam craze – the value of building a community, the value of engaging with influencers, and the value of riding the momentum. Of course we all dream of going viral, but the biggest lesson is turning all that attention into longevity.