British street artist Banksy, along with a loyal team of apprentices, recently concluded a month-long “artists residency” project exhibited on the streets of New York entitled Better Out Than In. Each day, Team Banksy updates its official website with a photograph or video of a new work of art and total chaos quickly ensues. Legions of Banksy fans rush to find the pieces to have their photos taken with them before the works are ultimately destroyed by fellow street artists, stolen, buffed, covered up, hijacked or removed entirely to be sold at auction. News outlets such as Forbes, Time and the New York Times have all reported on Banksy’s New York residency with the Instagram hashtag #banksyny providing highly entertaining up-to-the-minute accounts of the exhibit.
From my standpoint, the point of Better Out Than In has less to do with the actual art and more to do with people’s reactions to these public displays of thought-provoking content. These reactions are instantly uploaded to Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Instagram, thus further fueling Banksy’s mystique and ultimately galvanizing the Banksy brand. As CEO of branding firm Whitehorn Group, Christopher Johnson writes “Banksy is handling the work with a surety and deftness that is admirable, so it’s not surprising that Brand Banksy has been born […] I for one am paying attention to not only the art — but the technique.” There is an art (pun intended) to Banksy’s grand social media experiment, and as digital marketing, branding and PR professionals, we stand to learn a thing or two from it.
To help explain why Better Out Than In is a brilliant exercise in viral marketing, I looked to the insights expressed in Associate Professor of Marketing Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. If Banksy is a master of creating provocative viral content, Berger is equally gifted at identifying why such content spreads.
People share things on social media, according to Berger, because it makes them feel “sharp and in the know.” Berger refers to this feeling as social currency. Finding Banksy’s work on the streets of New York, particularly when many of them disappear or are destroyed in less than 24-hours, provides one with the ultimate social currency, i.e., bragging rights that become validated through shares, likes, and comments when such finds are documented online. Take for instance, Instagram user @iannyc who, through shrewd guess work, was able to snap a photo of Banksy’s October 18th West 24th pop-up gallery before it was unveiled to the public – posting the caption “Definitely the next one. First Pic!” Being the first person to document the find meant that @iannyc’s grainy and out-of-focus image was rich with social currency and well worth sharing. In an exclusive interview, Village Voice writer Keegan Hamilton exchanged emails with Banksy’s publicist Jo Brooks. Hamilton conveys how Banksy’s work naturally bestows social currency on people when he writes:
The fleeting nature of Banksy’s art is part of its appeal. Brooks says a new piece each day in New York ‘turns the city into a giant game of treasure hunt.’ Each work is a precious commodity that can disappear overnight. He wants them to be discovered in alleys next to dumpsters, not displayed in a sterile museum.
Most museums, from the MoMA to the MET, prevent one from taking photos of exhibits, whereas Banksy’s street art fundamentally relies on people documenting it through images and social media. These thousands of digital social currency exchanges make the street art experience richer and certainly more dynamic than what one may experience in a “sterile museum.”
Awe, amazement, shock, surprise, regret, anger … strong emotional responses drive people to share. As Berger writes, “naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion.” Think of the last thing that you posted online that produced a high number of shares or retweets. If the post did not involve insider’s knowledge embedded with social currency, there is a strong chance that it evoked emotion.
To date, I think that Banksy’s most viral post from Better Out Than In took place on October 13th when he uploaded a Youtube video with the caption “yesterday I setup a stall in the park selling 100% authentic original signed Banksy canvases for $60 each.” The video quickly got over 5 million views and a Google news search for the phrase “Banksy $60 Central Park” produced over 1,610 results from sites like CNN, CBS, NPR, and The Guardian. Banksy’s post evokes multiple strong emotions, the most common of which may be regret, shock, anger or surprise because a similar version of one of the pieces that Banksy was basically giving away for $60 sold at auction for almost a quarter of a million dollars. #OMG and #ohcrap help sum up our collective sense of shock seeing the video of unknowing New Yorkers walk past a potential windfall of art that hardly anyone ended up buying.
Public Social Transmission
The psychology of imitation is a powerful force that compels people to act in a particular way. Seeing others do something, Berger writes “makes people more likely to do it themselves.” Berger refers to this as social proof. By having others act a certain way, it helps prove that we ourselves can and should do it as well.
Banksy’s October 20th post called “Upper West Side” is a stencil of a young boy swinging a sledge hammer overtop of a fire hydrant connected to a red alarm bell, giving the illusion of a classic carnival game. The piece proves to be an ideal backdrop for people wanting to recreate a common pose, in particular, putting one’s head directly under the hammer – making it appear that the person posing is about to get bonked on the head by the boy’s hammer. Hilarious iterations of the pose include the smashing of a watermelon, vase, pumpkin and even images of Mayor Bloomberg who famously tasked the NYPD to “Get Banksy” on vandalism charges. We don’t know if Banksy intended for people to interact with the piece in such a way, but all it took was one person to put their head under the hammer and share it online to trigger a social transmission of other people looking to recreate the clever pose. Instagram user @angiesayers, for instance, struck the pose and included the caption “I just had to … #Banksy.” We just can’t help but follow other people’s lead, and I think in the case of this particular work, social media certainly enriches the experience.
Instagram user @RobertStevens cleverly uses the #BanksyNY hashtag
to interact and reimagine Banksy’s October 7th piece entitled
“Brookly” – http://instagram.com/robertstevens
Banksy’s brand and work are, at their core, ironic. Banksy claims to not take his work too seriously, but he and his team spend months carefully planning elaborate art installations. He is a rebellious street artist who happens to also be a famous multi-millionaire. Banksy loves to ridicule the people who flock to see his street art, but he then creates a free month-long public art exhibit with which fans should interact, share and play.
As such, Banksy’s grand social media experiment Better Out Than In, like all his work, should be examined with a sense of irony. When asked about his vision for Better Out Than In, he writes: “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.” In typical Banksy fashion, he says that this exhibit is not about marketing, which means that it is probably entirely about marketing.
The point is that Better Out Than In is about us and our interactions with it – it is about social media. It is about how people associate themselves with the Banksy brand and its message – a message that is intentionally convoluted at times. As a free public exhibit, Banksy has given us great content and the tools with which we can go out and spread his message and further build his brand. As a result, we should look at Banksy as a brilliant marketer from whom we stand to learn a great deal. It is just ironic that he would probably never admit this fact or approve of studying his work in the context of social media marketing, but I am totally fine with that. Irony is a technique … one that Banksy has masterfully used to trick all of us into helping sell this brand.