Thursday, July 25, 2013

Un-Flash: California company trades in fake spontaneity

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We know: Flash mobs are so ten years ago. But it turns out the craze whose entire point is an underground do-it-yourself surprise has gone corporate. And rather than celebrating creativity, community, and spontaneity, it’s now a business model profiting in part off the energy of unpaid performers.
Yes, there’s a company called Flash Mob America. It’s based in Los Angeles, and has produced what it calls “flash mobs” for major TV shows, including TodayModern Family, and The Bachelorette.
FMA’s “sole purpose,” according to its marketing materials, is “creating joy through surprise.” Oh, and making money by getting hired to put on staged events largely carried out by volunteers.
That’s what’s happening here. See, FMA employs a public-relations firm, Hollywood fave MWPR, which has worked with Oprah, Martha Stewart, People, Us Weekly, and more. Some poor intern from MWPR called the Phoenix (and, apparently, other Maine media outlets) on July 18 to announce that a “flash mob” will happen at 5 pm on August 5, somewhere in Portland. Surprise!
After cutting through some promo-talk the announcement boiled down to this: Would we at the Phoenix be interested in running a story, to tell people they could volunteer to perform? The company needed these unpaid workers, or it wouldn’t be able to actually provide the service for which it had been hired by an as-yet unidentified Portland client.
Now that’s a surprise.
The original flash-mob ethos was pretty different — fully DIY and organic, often created by groups of artists. One of the earliest academic studies of flash mobs, published inFibreculture Journal in December 2005 by Judith Nicholson, then a graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, found that flash mobs specifically avoided traditional media, in favor of mobile communication among participants directly.
The movement’s credo, she wrote, was “the power of many, in the pursuit of nothing.” And it was deliberately created and intended as a criticism of capitalist society, designed to empower citizens over governments and corporations. In fact, she wrote, “While flash mobbing was being popularized, a fear that someone would appoint himself leader of the mob or that the trend would be appropriated for specific political or commercial purposes was expressed frequently” by those involved. (With a leaderless reclaiming of public space for use by the people, it might be seen as a celebratory precursor to the Occupy movement.)
Of course, something can hardly be called “flash” if it’s being planned from across the country several weeks in advance. And with “more than 50 professional performers” in the mix, along with somewhere between 100 and 200 unpaid workers, it’s not quite sounding like a spontaneous fun thing. “It’s a really detailed full-scale live production,” FMA co-founder Staci Lawrence told me.
Though the event will be “in a really public place,” the audience is preselected — by the paying client. There’s “a specific group of people that we are surprising,” Lawrence says, hoping that anyone who figures out the details wouldn’t share them, for fear of ruining the closely guarded, highly manufactured spontaneity.
FMA gets permission from relevant authorities — a far cry from an upstart art form that used to call for outright cancellation of the event if property owners or police got wind of it beforehand.
But then, what should we expect from a company “founded . . . in tribute to Michael Jackson” anyway? Yes indeed, in the promo materials’ “About Flash Mob America” section is a heartwarming little gem: “In July 2009, Staci and Conroe [Brooks] — moved by Michael Jackson’s emotional memorial — produced the first American tribute to the late King of Pop by recreating Sweden’s ‘Beat It’ flash mob.”
You read that right: this is a company whose founders got their start by reenacting an actual flash mob, put on by a group of Swedish street dancers just two weeks after Jackson’s death.
And then, FMA did it again. And again. Back to the press release: “The following month they again honored Jackson with a flash mob on what would have been his 51st birthday. And then the unexpected: Universal Music Group hired the team to produce a flash mob to surprise the late pop icon’s sister, Janet Jackson.”
That led to bigger gigs, including somehow working with Oscar Mayer and Charmin, and leading to their self-description as “the industry’s flash-mob experts.” Lawrence says on big corporate jobs, she does try to make sure the non-professional mobbers get paid; for the upcoming Portland show and most others, though, “there’s not that kind of budget.”
That’s no surprise.