Volkswagen’s Fun Theory Reviewed

A recent Volkswagen commercial demonstrates a lighthearted experimental process that they have termed the ‘Fun Theory.’ In the commercial, the Volkswagen team wire a set of stairs inside a metro station to become a piano keyboard that interacts with those pedestrians who choose to take the stairs. As the pedestrians travel up and down the newly refurbished staircase, they suddenly discover they are playing notes on a piano. The sensors in the key pads that pedestrians step on were programmed to create the sound appropriate to the note played by the relative piano key. In doing this, the Volkswagen team wanted to know if more people would take the stairs because they had made taking the stairs ‘fun.’

This social experiment brings art, architecture and music together in one sensory experience. The commercial demonstrates several reactions to climbing musical stairs and each pedestrian seems to have a different response to the idea of creating music on their way up the staircase. Piano music of a whimsical and fun nature plays in the background of the commercial, fading in and out at key points to demonstrate that people stopping to press a key on the staircase are also playing the piano with each step they take. The result of the commercial is spontaneous, warm and encouraging to the viewer.

But what is the Fun Theory ultimately? Volkswagen’s team stops at the word fun as if fun is to be the only necessary element conveyed in the re-purposing of a set of metro stairs into a piano keyboard. Instead, let’s look deeper into what sort of purpose and pleasure the pedestrians might have been getting by the exercise (no pun intended) and, lastly, what does this say about music and the arts — about creativity itself?

Having fun is an amorphous phrase that is hard to define so let’s go deeper and define the meaning of fun.  According to psychologists, one large part of ‘having fun’ is the ability to express oneself in a unique manner, one that brings spontaneity and happiness through the act of just ‘being you.’  A person has fun when they are removed from limiting restrictions on their behavior and when that experience has relevance to the person.  Volkswagen therefore set up a scenario with its piano-keyboard staircase in which pedestrians could become accustomed to a set of musical stairs, practicing their ‘performance’ (in whatever form that took) on a recurring basis. This formed a literal habit of fun for pedestrians who found meaning in a musical staircase.

The commercial transcends mere fun because it parallels psychological research into motivation, especially in what motivates creative people.  Recent studies have shown that to increase productivity for creative work, the only thing that affected higher levels of being (creatively) productive was to ensure that the workers had a stable work environment and then were allowed enough freedom for spontaneity and individuality to take hold.

Yet at the end of the day, this little experiment was still an advertisement. But what was Volkswagen saying with this advertisement? Perhaps the message is, ‘We are productive and creative, we like to have fun, and so can you.’ Of course you don’t need a Volkswagen product to have fun at any time, but surely Volkswagen will come to mind as the fun-makers through this clever presentation of their methodology. And far worse things have been advertised as desirable than having some fun.