Similarities, differences and what could have been

On January 15th, 2009 T-Mobile (OK, their agency Saatchi & Saatchi) filmed a group of people in a supposed flashmob-style event at Liverpool Street station in London to reflect the tagline ‘Life is for sharing’. Lots of opinions floated around the interwebs following its debut on TV that day, mostly positive, from what I gathered. 
On February 6th, 2009, a bunch of people, almost 13,000 strong, performed a silent disco (I don’t think it was very silent, from what I can see from the video, though!!) at the same venue. They got together based on information circulated in a Facebook group, many reports declaring that they created havoc for commuters who were trying to get home because the station was too jammed. 
There’s been some debate about whether the latter was ‘inspired’ by the former – CNN says outright that it was, in this article. I can’t find any information to the contrary, but personally I don’t think so. For one, flashmobs aren’t a particularly new concept – they began as early as 2003. The T-mobile commercial merely took the concept and used it to their benefit. (Apparently there were constant flashes going off and cameras/cameraphones filming the event, which was what the whole point of the stunt was – unless even those people were actors). T-Mobile will probably go down in history as the first brand to create an ad based on the concept, good for them. But if you think about how spontaneous it was (and this is where the ad has faced criticism), it seems to suddenly lose lustre. It’s like you were cheated out of your money because the brilliancy of the whole idea was no more than a performance by some people who were paid to do their job. The Facebook flashmob, on the other hand, was a great example of the power of social networking – here you had 13,000+ people who were alerted by no other means of communication than Facebook, who came together on their own and clearly had no monetary motive. Where they fell short, in my opinion, is in the execution – I’d rather watch the T-Mobile ad than the Facebook flashmob – you can’t have a ‘silent’ disco with people screeching all around.
What makes any act of this nature special is summarised beautifully in the words of Charlie Todd, founder of the New York group Improv Everywhere:

We get satisfaction from coming up with an awesome idea and making it come to life. In the process we bring excitement to otherwise unexciting locales and give strangers a story they can tell for the rest of their lives. We’re out to prove that a prank doesn’t have to involve humiliation or embarrassment; it can simply be about making someone laugh, smile, or stop to notice the world around them.

Improv Everywhere were behind the Grand Central freeze, one of my all-time favourite conversational topics. Technically though, they claim their events are not like flashmobs at all. (CNN slipped up in this article – more about Improv Everywhere’s philosophy here). So if comparisons are being made, I’d compare the T-Mobile stunt to the events organised by Improv Everywhere – but with one crucial difference. People who participate in Improv Everywhere’s events aren’t paid – they simply do it for the fun of it, whereas the T-Mobile actors probably were. I can’t say this for sure, but I’m pretty much certain. Then I started thinking – does that one fact make a difference to me? I completely agree with what Charlie Todd said, and that’s what makes those kind of events strike a chord with me. So if I had to strip the T-Mobile ad down to its bare bones – yes, it does make a difference, even if I give them full marks for execution. If the people involved in the ad weren’t paid, however (highly unlikely!), then I guess my vote goes for it 100%. Similarly, I loved the *idea* of the Facebook flashmob, but wish they’d gone about it better. 
Moral of this story: Know exactly what you want to do, and what you’re doing it for. Improv Everywhere doesn’t do ads for this reason. People won’t buy it. The Facebook flashmob could have done something else (a sudden faint, a human chain, a mass huddle) in that venue. Or they should have made sure that not one person opened their mouth, which actually may have been a sight to see. But with 13,000 mostly teenaged people, that’s tough to control. And T-Mobile could have asked people to do something for the fun of it, and publicized that fact to their advantage.
Thoughts?