Fun Theory and the Ethics of Marketing

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

A virus is sweeping the internet this week.  You’ll recognize it when you start to laugh, then repost it for others to share.  No, I’m not talking about a vicious computer program that attacks your operating system.  I’m referring to the viral spread of this two minute video by Fun Theory, a marketing experiment funded by Volkswagen:


Watching this video prompted me to think of two serious themes that are relevant to environmental communicators today.  The first theme involves the ethics of this kind of marketing, where the viewer spends nearly two minutes immersed in a pleasant experience (with no reference to Volkswagen throughout) and completes their experience with a very brief reference to the company that funded a cool experiment that made the viewer smile.

This is not a rational argument to convince the viewer to buy a product.  There is no product!  Instead, it is an attempt to associate subconcious feelings about fun, music, community, etc. with the emotional content of an auto manufacturer’s brand image – and a very successful attemp at that.

We have entered an era where insights into human cognition are used in powerful and subtle ways to sell products.  Marketing experts typically know quite a lot about how our inner workings – what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call the “cognitive unconscious” – contribute to the semantics of human experience.  They understand the psychology of emotional priming.  They know how risk perception works and why positive or negative associations drive choices more than facts and figures.  And, of course, they know that people are unable to consciously introspect about what their brains and bodies are doing outside their awareness.  The ethics of marketing are very important to the future of humanity and deserve careful consideration.

The second theme that comes to my mind is the role of fun in “saving the world.” After this video came out there was a lively discussion on the Climate Blogger’s Network where I participate from time to time about whether motivational psychology (e.g. the use of fun to change peoples’ behavior) is vital to the environmental movement or a distraction from it.

I tend to think that fun is a vital component of any sustained, long-term web of activities that lead to lasting and substantive change.  Some of my fellow climate bloggers took me to mean that I support appeals to self-interest by claiming that saving the world should be fun.  Here’s a snippet of what I said in response:

How are fun and self-interest different?  For one thing, fun is often  about social activity.  It can be a profoundly communal thing to do that connects people to one another and the larger natural world. There’s no rule that says “the only way to have fun is to calculate a utility function for my personal pleasure account and then do what’s necessary to make it as big as possible.”  This is what rational choice theory (the model of human nature behind the theory of self- interest) tells us that we do.  It is a deeply and profoundly flawed model and it doesn’t work very well at explaining real human behavior.  The theory of self-interest focuses only on individuals. It’s underlying philosophy denies the existence of community.

In order to use fun to advance the environmental movement, we’ll need to evoke frames around community and connectedness… not those of individualism and isolated self-interest.  In order for motivation to be sustainable, it also has to have ongoing novelty in order to engage people.  This means the work of sustainability needs to promote personal fulfillment – including ongoing growth, engaging challenges, and opportunities for revelry.  The work may not always be fun (indeed it can’t be!), but it will have to be fun sometimes or it won’t work.

I look to examples like Dave Finnigan’s Climate Change is Elementary where emphasis is placed on engaging primary school children in the process of community change.  How?  By making it fun, challenging, and calling for social responsibility that starts at home.

There’s a lot more I could say about both of these themes.  I’m sure you have plenty you could add too.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update – Friday, October 16, 2009
I’m organizing a community to discuss the ethics of marketing.  Interested?  You’re invited… contact me here.

This article was also published at Cognitive Policy Works.

Joe BrewerFun Theory and the Ethics of Marketing


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  • Jim Mitchell - October 16, 2009 reply

    This is interesting as so often I come across the attitude that environmental behaviour is about sacrifice and guilt. A recent conversation I had with someone who had just attended a seminar about climate change reflected their attitude that is was about sacrificing things that are fun and pleasurable in life and guilt about how they are ‘trashing the planet’. If your definition of fun is a new smartphone every year or a weekend break to Spain, then perhaps there are elements of truth in this and trying to appeal to this superficial definition of fun is only going to go so far (i.e. not very much)..However it is true that deeper forms of pleasure are best enjoyed after hard work or a feeling they have been ‘earned’. Compare that Friday night glass of wine after a difficult week to the Monday night tipple. Non stop revelry can become a chore as the super rich can find out. I agree that fulfilment is the key motivator, and that shared work and yes, some sacrifice will result in personal fulfilment and community fulfilment – and a big party. In this way maybe we can frame the likely increase in hard work that is needed (i.e. the return to labour intensive forms of food production for example) so that more people can witness and see its power as a route to shared fulfilment. That’s why the Transition movement I think has so much potential at the moment to influence identity- it deals with the community level.

  • Joe Brewer - October 16, 2009 reply

    Hi Jim,

    I agree that personal fulfillment is a key component of “fun-based” sustainability efforts. One thing that comes to my mind is the experience of visiting a farmer’s market compared to a trip to the grocery store. The web of relationships is dramatically different. At the grocery store, I am a customer who has been trained (via a lifetime of marketing) to “look for good deals”, “comparison shop”, and so on. I am surrounded by brand information on the packaging, on displays, on magazine covers at the check-out.

    When I go to the farmer’s market, the experience is quite different. I feel more like a neighbor than a customer. I am surrounded by people in a way that feels old and nostalgic, as though the open market is a friend from my past whom I’ve forgotten about. The brand marketing is reduced to names and logos for different farms… and my feelings about them are influenced by direct, physical interaction with the warmth or coldness of the person at the stand and the appearance/taste of the food they grow.

    The dynamic of a farmer’s market visit is slower and more time consuming, yet I find it to be very pleasurable because of the feelings of community and personal connection. My sense of identity shifts in this context from consumer to community member.

    I suppose this is just a long way of saying that I have fun at the farmer’s market and it motivates me to do it again.

    Doing the right thing doesn’t have to be like taking medicine… although sometimes it is. Doing the right thing can be fulfilling and enjoyable too.



  • Niamh - October 20, 2009 reply

    Hi Joe and Nicolas

    Thought you might be interested to hear this:

    Best wishes

  • Joe Brewer - October 20, 2009 reply

    Hi Niamh,

    Thanks for sharing… this talk is really interesting and insightful.

    I’ll incorporate Stuart’s thinking into my own work.



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