Ok Go’s new video brought to you by State Farm

ok go musicFor those of us in the marketing world, it’s hard to ignore the increasing importance that social media is playing in our marketing strategy and the way that our messages reach their audience. Social media not only can help increase our reach in a relatively cost effective way, but it provides a platform for engagement with consumers. Marketers and advertisers are constantly trying to come up with ways to create something interesting enough to spread virally through the web, whether it’s via blogs, YouTube or Facebook. It’s a marketer’s dream. So it’s hard to imagine that some companies would actually impede the process.

But it’s something the band Ok Go knows all too well.

You may remember Ok Go from their music video a few years back for the song “Here It Goes Again”, an elaborately choreographed number on moving treadmills. They rose to fame as the video spread like wildfire online via YouTube (nearly 50 million views on YouTube alone), thus spawning many other media appearances. As Damian Kulash, the lead singer and guitarist, said himself, “To the band, “Here It Goes Again” was a successful creative project. To the record company, it was a successful, completely free advertisement.” It seemed to be a win-win.

But the success of that video had larger implications due to the ever changing landscape of the music industry and their struggle to find alternative sources of revenue. Major labels started to set up partnerships with video sharing sites such as YouTube so they get a small kick back when one of their artists’ videos is viewed, thus making back some money that they invested to get the videos produced. Ok Go’s parent label EMI, for one, has taken issue people embedding their popular videos on “non-partner sites”, such as the enthralling blog you are reading now, because they aren’t able to capitalize on the views. Ok Go has taken a clear stance on this, and for good reason. They owe their fame to viral promotion. See their open letter on the subject here, and a New York Times Op-Ed piece written by Kulash here.

Either unfazed or unaware of the situation at hand, Ok Go set out to recreate the experience people had with the “Here it Goes Again” video after the release of their latest album. But they have upped the ante with their new video for the song “This Too Shall Pass”. Still high concept, but with (it seems) a bigger budget. In the video, we are walked through a complex gadget built with meticulously-timed, domino effects that take us on a ride of one visual stimulus after the next. It’s a large-scale game of Mouse Trap set to music. And like its predecessor, it’s filmed all in one take. Oh, and the songs pretty catchy to boot. It’s creative, original and entertaining; a sure-fire viral hit. At the timing of this post, the video had been live for just 3 days and already had over 2.5 million views on YouTube.

Someone at EMI eventually realized that to hinder the spread of the video would be a mistake. So as a solution, they signed on State Farm as a sponsor of the video. As you watch the video, the truck that starts off the entire chain of events displays the State Farm logo. And in case you miss that, they are sure to mention it again at the end of the video. Average Joe You Tube Viewer probably has no idea what went on behind the scenes and that the sponsorship happened after the fact as a resolution to be able to allow the video to be embedded, so the State Farm endorsement may be a little confusing. But with the millions of views, the brand is getting great exposure and EMI makes a few extra bucks.

While music videos are often creative outlets for the artists, they essentially serve as an advertisement for the band and their music. They are a promotional tool, but typically not a direct revenue stream themselves. I am sympathetic with record companies these days as they struggle to find their financial footing in the new millennium, but charging the medium doesn’t seem to be the right answer. It almost like asking NBC to pay Budweiser to be able to air their funny commercials, not vice versa. Back in the day when MTV actually played videos, they didn’t pay the bands or labels to air that content, so why should that be the case in the YouTube generation? Further, why would you want to prohibit other people from spreading your message for you? As Kulash put it earlier, it’s essentially free advertising. The popularity of the video means more fans, which to EMI should mean increased sales of albums, digital downloads, merchandise, publishing deals, and concert tickets. The profit they make from these sales has to be more than the small percentage of kick back they are getting from the video-sharing websites. But of course I’ve never seen their income statement.

What has made music videos work all of these years is their dual purpose of promotion and entertainment. Not long after MTV’s launch, Rolling Stone writer Steven Levy wrote “MTV’s greatest achievement has been to coax rock & roll into the video arena where you can’t distinguish between entertainment and the sales pitch.” Herein lies the problem with the State Farm sponsorship of the Ok Go video. It makes that blurred line of promotion and entertainment much more overt. It says to the viewer that this video was not created as a way for a band to entertain and interact with their fans, it was done so to make a profit. (I realize that this was not the intention of Ok Go in this case, as the sponsorship was a necessary means to an end to allow the embedding.) Is Ok Go going to have to get a sponsor for every video now? That is sure to have an adverse effect on their fan base. So not only is EMI alienating the Gen Y audience by disallowing them to consume and share the content in the way they want, but they are going to drive them away by explicitly commercializing such content. Sounds like a lose-lose.

As a side note, Ok Go previously released a live performance video of the song “This Too Shall Pass”, which featured the Notre Dame marching band. It’s also done in just one take, and it’s quirky entertainment, in true Ok Go fashion. Of course there are no Notre Dame logos in the video, as I’m sure that kind of “brand exposure” would have cost them.

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