The Harlem Shake: The Phenomenon and What Brands are Doing with It

What is different won’t necessarily catch on, but what will catch on is necessarily different.  And this is different.

The latest example of viral video as the 21st century sideshow is the Harlem Shake.  This meme has gone wild these last couple of weeks.  It began with a bizarre video from Dizasta Music (11 million views) but a second video from TheSunnyCoastSkate (12 million views) gave the craze shape:

Now tens of thousands of people have followed the same simple formula:

• With a single, fixed camera, shoot a 30-second video to the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer.

• For the first fifteen seconds, one person dances, perhaps wearing a strange helmet or mask, surrounded by other, seemingly disinterested people.

• At the fifteen second mark, the music kicks up and chaos ensues with a cut to everyone wearing wild costumes and going crazy dancing.

As of Valentine’s Day, YouTube reported that there were about 40,000 Harlem Shake videos, with more being posted every day.  And altogether, they’ve been viewed over 175 million times.

They range from the Matt and Kim Edition
(7.7 million views):
To the UGA Men’s Swim and Dive Harlem Shake
(19.2 million views):
And even the Norwegian Army got involved (18 million views):

What makes this phenomenon so contagious?

First, it’s a simple, effective formula, so it’s easy for people to join in and make their own.  Second, it scores very well on all four of our rules for creating viral videos.  Let’s break that down.

Rule One: Be True.  High marks here.  Each of these videos is documenting a real event with a single, fixed camera and only one edit.  That’s sticking to simple, strong Internet production techniques that keep it true and make it contagious.

Rule Two: Don’t Waste My Time.  Yes, some may argue that the whole phenomenon is a waste of time.  But all these videos are quick and get right down to business.  The same dancing would wear thin if the videos were even a minute long, but at thirty seconds, they are great bite-sized videos that you (or your kids) can devour like candy.

Rule Three: Be Unforgettable.  Again, contagious content has to be different, and this phenomenon is exactly that.  It’s downright bizarre.

Rule Four: It’s All About Humanity.  Great marks here as well, and this rule is crucial to the success of the phenomenon.  Each video gives us a glimpse of who these people are.  It’s a chance to express yourself.  What’s your crazy costume?  What’s your silly dance?  This formula, like Where the Hell is Matt? 2008 (45 million views), gives a simple way to see how different people make the same idea their own and reveal something of themselves in the process.  The humanity revealed is what makes it fun to see the Grandma Edition (4.1 million views) or the Maker Studios Office Edition (16.8 million views).

Following Maker Studios lead, a few brands have made Harlem Shake videos, with companies like Buzzfeed (800,000 views) and College Humor (2.6 million views) making their own office editions.

Most interestingly, Pepsi has posted two Harlem Shake videos:*

The first is a computer-generated can dancing and lacks all the truth and humanity of the phenomenon. It tries to exploit a popular meme for a blatant commercial. That’s simply not contagious.

The second video, on the other hand, stays true to the formula.  It’s the Jeff Gordon Edition, and there’s blatant branding, but it’s much stronger.  It trusts the truth and just points the camera at people dancing.  One minor quibble: there are two puzzling video effects thrown in at 0:20 and 0:21 where the video shakes and flashes.  That is a strange departure from the simple, low-tech formula and they don’t gain anything by using the effects.  But overall, this second video does a good job of staying true and embracing the phenomenon.

How are these two videos doing?  As of this writing, the first, overly-branded, CG video has 136,822 views and the second video that sticks more to the true formula has 1.9 million views.  That makes sense: the second is much better for the Internet.  It’s much more contagious.

What’s next for the phenomenon?  The tricky thing with a craze like this is seeing how fast it wears out its welcome.  What was unforgettable a week ago can now be old news and annoying. But this craze may last a bit longer, so long as people keep coming up with fresh variations like these:

Puppy Edition, 1.7 million views
Dryer Edition, 1.9 million views**

*Since this blog entry was posted, Pepsi has removed their computer-generated Harlem Shake video from YouTube, most likely due to its low number of views. Sorry to those of you who won’t get to see it, but it’s removal underlines a crucial point about branding which we often make here on when it comes to product shots in a viral video, don’t overdo it! If people think of your video as just another commercial, they won’t share it.

**Looks like the Dryer Edition, with several million views, ran into some copyright issues and was also taken down. Here is what seems to be the original posting:

An interesting note on the copyright issue: the viral video that we first posted was taken down due to a copyright claim by YouTuber RediLataj, who seems to have combined footage from YouTuber Photonvids with music by Baauer. The combination is brilliant, but where does the copyright claim actually lie?