One of the greatest concerns in today’s world is the environmental impact that people are causing, especially with all the harmful gases released from our activities. The largest culprit is from the automotive industries. The increasing number of cars on the road leads to greater fuel consumption and as a result, there is a greater emission of greenhouse gases. This has become a pressing issue requiring the attention of the government to ensure economic and social stability. As a result, the 21st century is a period where the government places great emphasis in reducing the carbon footprint and rewards organisations that take up such green initiatives. By doing so, organisations stand to benefit competitively in the market as consumers will naturally seek alternatives mode of transport once fuel prices for their automotive start to rise. In 2010, Volkswagen was the first to come up with an eco model version of a car under its BlueMotion Technologies – a concept that their cars and innovations are built to be more efficient and environmentally friendly (Shatouri & Ismail, 2011; Volkswagen, n.d.). However, developments of such technology are new and translates to greater cost in manufacturing and with such a novel initiative, there were concerns that consumers will find it “complicated” (Loof & Goldmann, n.d.) and less “fun” in “passing up a more commodious, less expensive, and seemingly safer SUV in favour of a smaller and more expensive green machine” (Dalton, 2010).
To tackle this problem, Volkswagen worked with DDB Stockholm and came up with Rolighetsterorin, otherwise known as “The Fun Theory” in 2010. It targeted drivers and car owners and consisted of 3 campaigns built around the theme that making things fun is the simplest way to change people’s behaviour for the better, and a final campaign in the form of a competition where the public was allowed to submit their own ideas. It was an “initiative to get people to change their lazy behaviours and ultimately, how they feel about driving environmentally friendly cars by allowing them to see the fun side of acting responsibly” (Diaz, 2009). Essentially, they wanted the public to understand that their eco-friendly cars will not compromise the performance of driving. Andreas Dahlqvist, creative director of DDB Stockholm explains that “the campaign has just started up with a number of experiments in which the theory – that fun can change people’s behaviour – is tested in various situations. All the campaigns were recorded and uploaded on YouTube, which ultimately turned viral, became immensely successful and in turn, helped generate awareness and interest in Volkswagen BlueMotion Technologies. Throughout the entire campaign, Volkswagen chose to take a very subtle role in it and let the consumer connect the dots between the campaigns, which eventually lead them to the main message of the campaign. With the videos and its intended messages spreading virally across the Internet, there is a positive association with the Volkswagen brand.
In order to affect positive behavioural change in its public, The Fun Theory utilises the two-way symmetrical model of communications, one of the four models of communication between the public and the public relations practitioner identified by Grunig and Hunt (1994). The success of The Fun Theory can be attributed to interactive nature that makes up the cornerstone of each campaign, which ultimately led the public to identify with Volkswagen’s message that they can do their part in reducing the environmental impact without compromising the joy or performance of driving. Underlying the interactive nature of the campaigns is the co-creational theory, viewing the “publics as co-creators of meaning and communication is what makes it possible to agree to shared meanings, interpretations, and goals” (Botan and Taylor, 2004), which caused the public to identify with Volkswagen. As such, by focusing on the co-creational perspective, it will help Volkswagen “produce better long-term relationships with the public than other models of public relations” (Grunig, Grunig and Dozier, 2006) as seen from the subsequent series of publics initiated campaigns submitted to The Fun Theory long after Volkswagen has achieved its aims.
The Fun Theory and its premise resonated extremely well with its target publics and successfully allowed Volkswagen to achieve its aims. Its belief in the theory that by making things fun, people’s behaviour will change for the better is exemplified throughout all its initiatives and the results are proof that it works. The common theme across all campaigns is the element of fun in doing environmentally good activities that people may find “boring” or “troublesome”. The Fun Theory aims to achieve this by turning uninteresting everyday activities into something fun and interactive.
The first of the campaigns and the most popular one, “Piano Stairs” saw a busy train station’s stairs situated next to an escalator, rigged to play a key whenever someone steps on it. This was to encourage more people to take the stairs over the escalators. The start of this YouTube video began with the question, “Can we get more people to choose the stairs by making it fun to do?” (Rolighetsteorin, 2009a), and slowly shows increasingly more people deciding to take these piano stairs instead of the escalators, purely because it was more “fun” to do so. In this particular campaign, 66% more people than average chose to take the stairs than the escalators (Rolighetsteorin, 2009a). The video then ends with the message that Volkswagen is attempting to put across to its public, “Fun can obviously change behaviour for the better”. The Piano Stairs video alone garnered more than 1,200,000 views on YouTube in just over 4 days (Roumen, 2009)
The other two campaigns, “World’s Deepest Bin” and “Bottle Bank Arcade” revolved around the same principle. World’s Deepest Bin collected 72kg of rubbish, 41kg more than a normal bin nearby; more than a hundred people used Bottle Bank Arcade one evening, compared to the nearby standard bottle bank that was merely used twice. (Rolighetsteorin, 2009b; Rolighetsteorin 2009c). The last initiative was a winning campaign submitted by the public as part of The Fun Theory Awards. Titled as “The Speed Camera Lottery” it encouraged drivers to keep below the speed limit. After the campaign, the average speed dropped by 22%, making it a success (Rolighetsteorin, 2010d). According to statistics from Roumen (2009), the word “piano” that was related to the video was increasingly used as a search term after the video became viral. Thus, it can be seen from the results of each individual campaign that the tactics employed in executing Volkswagen’s Fun Theory campaign were highly effective in affecting positive change in its publics’ behaviour. In addition, The Fun Theory did not just close its doors to achieving its goals. Instead, it was kept open and became a platform for the public to submit their own ideas for promoting change, not just for the environment, but anything for the better, all in the name of fun. The continued success of The Fun Theory highlights the potential and ability for Volkswagen to associate positive words and meanings around its BlueMotion technologies and its brand. The innovation behind turning boring environmentally friendly acts into interactive and fun actions is a flawless tactic for achieving Volkswagen’s campaign’s strategy.
The Fun Theory highlights the importance of the co-creational perspective for any organisations in “building effective relationships with the public” (Bowen, 2005). According to Where Good Grows (n.d.), the campaigns became one of the most vital one of all time and helped put Volkswagen’s BlueMotion Technologies philosophies on the global map. Not only that, it had a global outreach to 40 million people and improved Volkswagen’s market share in the eco market from 8% to 14.7% and also increased the sales of their eco-friendly car Passat, by 106%. As a whole, The Fun Theory was an effective and successful campaign as it helped Volkswagen achieve not just its organisational aims, but also helped affect positive public change too.
As successful as the campaign may seem, there is an inherent problem in which Volkswagen has achieved its success. It is undeniable that Volkswagen has helped changed public behaviour for the better, but it has created a situation where the organisation itself has taken it upon themselves to change people’s behaviour, instead of an ideal situation where people are encouraged to take responsibility of their own behaviour and change it for the better. This translates to a campaign that will become ineffectual in the long run despite its immediate success. Piano Stairs was the most successful campaigns but its success in encouraging people to take the stairs is only constrained to that one particular area in which it was installed, and it is in human nature to revert back to their original behaviour after the excitement and novelty wear off.
However, as much as the campaign may not be effective for long, The Fun Theory campaign has indirectly found its longevity as well. The final part of the campaign was an initiative that was proposed by a public, which thereafter led to The Fun Theory Awards where anyone can submit an idea they have for affecting change for the better. This made the platform far more self-sustainable and effective in the long run and it is still running as of today. Despite this, it is still far from perfect. The Fun Theory’s tenet is essential to love what you do, and you will naturally have fun while doing it. So far, the campaigns have so far only focused and restricted to creating tangible engineering solutions (such as the Piano Stairs and Bottle Bank Arcade). Perhaps by focusing inwardly on the human condition and studying human behaviour, they could come up with an innovative and better answer in changing people’s behaviour for the better, and for good. Nevertheless, The Fun Theory can still be considered successful and it is on the right track in getting people to be more aware of that eco-friendly activities need not be mundane or boring.
In conclusion, Volkswagen and DDB Stockholm did effectively make use of The Fun Theory campaign with the underlying co-creational theory in order to affect positive change in people’s behaviour to an environmental problem. They attempted to address the problem of the mundaneness, “boring” nature of doing eco-friendly activities such as throwing rubbish into the bin, taking the stairs, or recycling bottles via fun and creative solutions. With this strategy, they hoped to generate interest and awareness of their BlueMotion Technologies – a series of eco-friendly cars and innovations, and also to show that by purchasing their eco-car and hence reducing the impact to the environment, one needs to neither compromise performance nor joy of driving one. The co-creational approach in their campaigns helped create meaning and conversation with their publics and also established a relationship of mutuality where the public can identify with the organisation. This is the result of the public’s willingness to be part of Volkswagen’s fun initiatives and also the fact that The Fun Theory eventually became a self-sustaining platform led by the public themselves. By embracing the two-way symmetrical model, “a free exchange of information” is inherent (Pieczka, 2008) and by playing a subtle role in its campaign – the brand only appears briefly at the end of each video on YouTube – it helped reinforce a positive image of Volkswagen and the public have understood the message that Volkswagen is trying to bring across. Of course, as successful as they have been, there will always be room for improvement. The Fun Theory is on the right track in getting the public to change their behaviour for the better, but more needs to be done to encourage change in behaviour for good. Should they achieve this, not only has Volkswagen achieved its organisational goals (as evident by the sales of their eco-car Passat), they would have made the world an environmentally friendlier place to live in.