Edward Tessen Tanaka
Feb 13, 2012

OK Go and Chevrolet: Modern marketing and social media scalability principles at their finest

The Super Bowl is one of the most watched television events nearly every year, often viewed in more than 40 million households. This year was no exception, breaking the record for the most watched program in the history of television with 111.3 million individual viewers. For many people (read: those of us who could not care less about football), the commercials are as anticipated, if not more so, as the actual game itself.

Each year, companies compete for coveted 30-second spots during commercial breaks that, this year, came with a hefty $3.5 million price tag on average. While these are usually some of the most innovative commercials we see throughout the year, one ad in particular -- paid for by Chevrolet to promote its new sub-compact, the Sonic -- stands out this year for its technical merits in two distinct but critical areas.  

Ironically, we are not talking about the engineering and technology used to manufacture the car. Nor are we discussing a new electronics and/or safety feature set incorporated into this vehicle (which performs pretty well in the commercial). In this case, we are looking at this commercial from the perspective of an acoustic engineer and business analyst.

To better understand how these two disciplines were integrated, let’s take a quick look at the video below.


As you can see this commercial was no easily accomplished task.

The idea was conceived and produced by the band OK Go. Yes, they are the four colorful gentlemen riding around in the car while singing, playing instruments, opening doors, actually driving the car around a variety of interesting obstacles. In fact, singer Damian Kulash Jr. was sent to driving school so that he could perform all the stunts in the video himself.

The music produced by this somewhat off-kilter team and the Sonic was not created using accidental, incidental and purely trial-by-error techniques, but by the help of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate and acoustic engineer named Noah Vawter. Also note, this is not the first time that OK Go worked with graduates of MIT. The band, which has received over 165 million views on YouTube for its videos, also worked with MIT graduates Jeff Lieberman and Eric Gunther on their recent video for "End Love."

Here is a summary of the components necessary to create the track (viewers, please don't try this at home) along with the major technical accomplishments as related to acoustic engineering achieved by Ok Go and Noah Vawter.

The band used a two-mile-long rally style course with each part of the track corresponding with a particular stanza of the song. Several Sonics were used, including the one seen maneuvering around the course with several long, outward-swinging devices that are controlled by a pneumatic trunk cylinder.

The video took four days of filming at a remote ranch in the California Mojave Desert after four months of construction and preparation. The track consisted of over 1,100 instruments: 58 upright pianos, 288 electric guitars, 66 amps and countless replacements for the arms on the car. Kulash says he spent three days tuning the pianos so that all the keys on the lower octaves were tuned to the same notes, meaning that they would make the same sound no matter where the arms hit them.

To find the correct driving speed necessary in order to play the song, a band member wrote a program that converts musical bars into miles per hour. The average speed was about 35 mph for the chorus and 17-22 mph for the other parts of the song. Kulash also had visual downbeat references (beanbags dropping onto the track at timed intervals) and a metronome in the car.

The band recorded in multiple tracks and after filming was finished, they had 189 tracks to compile in the editing room.

Interesting would be an understatement.  

The commercial is a feast for both the eyes and the ears. The technical proficiency achieved through the application of sound acoustic design principles (and a lot of mathematics) is even more interesting than the physical engineering of the product being highlighted in the commercial.  

But why would a company like Chevrolet pay for a band -- with a large Internet following -- to hire an MIT engineer to produce a commercial that upstages even their own newest product?  

According to old school public relations, this idea just doesn't make sense. Or does it? Car companies and their traditional advertising agencies love to focus on the product. However, this worldview is somewhat problematic because it ignores the reality of how Internet search, social media, public relations and viral online campaigns currently operate.

Let's start with a comment shared by the band when asked how this commercial was going to increase sales (of either their music or the Sonic). Kulash replied by saying, "If you have to connect inputs and outputs too directly you're going to quickly get stuck in a 20th-century model (of cause and immediate affect and its impact on sales)."

Enter the business analyst with insight-based content. Content, truly unique content that cannot be replicated, will continue to draw attention for an indefinite period.  In financial forecasting terms, unique content has an indefinite event horizon and therefore will exist into perpetuity. Perpetuity is a very, very long time. Companies that are product focused, according to the rules of social media economy, should implement similar strategies for establishing foundations of unique content because -- much like that embarrassing photo of you drunk on Facebook -- it is going to be out there forever.

When was the last time you could say that about a magazine? A newspaper? An electronic display board on Times Square?

Chevrolet didn't just pay for a colorful commercial; they paid for the creation of highly unique and difficult to replicate content. Their competitors might make a better car, but to be recognized in today's information heavy economy, they need better content -- not just internal features -- to get consumers to notice their products.  As a matter of fact, this video will continue to represent the Chevrolet brand (and the band) long after the Sonic reaches its planned obsolescence parameters.

Technology and business continue to evolve and moments like this represent the evolution of both. The integration of interesting content -- with difficult parameters to imitate -- is a significant strategic advantage in the social media age. With that said, we would like to welcome the convergence of technical engineering into creative media as a new business best practice. Scalability now has a new dimension that is not only artistic, but creates another class of intellectual property entirely.