Brent Coker Internet consumer psychologist Dr Brent Coker

Why Gangnam Style has Gone Viral

5. October 2012

The ridiculous success of the music video “Gangnam Style” over the past few weeks has me intrigued. At the time of writing the video has 360 million views on YouTube, up 100 million from when I checked last week. On the face of it, the success of the video appears to contradict what we know about viral. But on closer examination, it follows a familiar pattern…

Not so long ago scientists dismissed YouTube movies that went viral as a function of randomness. But in the past couple of years, evidence has been mounting to suggest successful viral events may be explained and predicted. In other words, we know enough now (in theory at least) to produce communication in such a way that it will have a high likelihood of going viral. In order to understand why Gangnam Style went viral, we need to cover the fundamentals.

The first thing to know about viral marketing techniques is that there are two elements of the communications continuum that need to be addressed. The first is curiosity –someone must be motivated to want to view the movie. This is achieved in most part by controlling emotion.  The second is motives-to-share. One must have a reason to want to tell others about the movie, and therefore pass it on. This is achieved by creating message congruency. There is another, called seeding (I also call this network involvement ratio) -but in this article we will restrict ourselves to motives-to-share and emotion.

The secret to creating curiosity that is sharable is keeping someone’s attention. There are two general categories of emotion that are known in viral communications to stimulate attention. The first is pleasure, which might manifest itself as humour, affection for something cute, impressed amazement, or even intense want. The second is shock, which might manifest itself as anticipation, intense surprise, embarrassment, or a violation of cultural norms.

For a viral movie to be successful, it needs to balance both of these categories of emotion, in a certain way. Specifically, each emotion must chop and change in short bursts. To illustrate, consider the success of the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” advertisement. The scenes changed rapidly, moderating humour and surprise in short bursts. This affect is also obvious in TNTs “Push for Drama”, where shock is mixed nicely with humour using the classic reverse psychology theme of “don’t push this button” Moderating and changing the two categories of emotion like this creates a short sharp emotional roller-coaster, fundamental for keeping the level of attention needed to evoke curiosity and therefore motives to share.

The “Gangnam Style” video also uses this pulsating emotional roller-coaster effect, but in a music video format. Incidents of humorous behaviour are peppered in between short scenes of emotional discomfort that surprise and delight the viewer. The effect is replicated in the music, creating a clever composition that sticks in the head (rather annoyingly for some!). The choppiness of the chorus interspaced with the intensity of the lyrics creates a sense of tension; much like a horror movie builds tension by altering the speed and intensity of the score. But in a much more complex way, interspacing tension with pleasure.

The second element to consider is message congruency. If we don’t relate to the audience, they will switch off. To create this relevancy, viral movies are often produced to attract appeal from a specific audience. One little trick we can use to maximise this effect and appeal to a broad audience is to show emotional responses in the form of facial and body expressions. In psychology we speak of “emotional contagion” whereby a person’s emotional state is influenced by the emotions of those around them. Imagine watching TNTs “Push for Drama” without seeing the responses of those who pushed the button. I am almost certain the movie’s success would have been much less. For Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, we are experiencing congruency from facial expression and action. The unique dance moves for example have captured the world’s attention because they convey a unique mix of emotion (close to shock and humour). Psy’s facial expressions also convey very strong meaning, particularly in the chorus “Oppan gang-namseutayil!”

In summary, whether by accident or not Gangnam Style is using strong techniques of viral marketing that we have observed already, in similarly successful viral movies. Emotion is key to creating this viral effect, but the art is in how the emotion is crafted. Chopping and changing between uncomfortable humour and surprise works. Emotional contagion caught from the expressions and actions of others also works. What is unique about Gangnam style is that it is neatly captured in a music video. Have we finally turned the corner towards a new wave of music marketing? The times. They certainly are a-changing.


Brent Coker ,

Comments (6) -

Sean Kim
10/7/2012 7:20:22 PM #
I was born in Korea and live in Australia. So I speak both Korean and English. One remarkable thing about this video is that I had never seen anything like it in the past whether in Korea or elsewhere. It was definitely new and shocking. When I watched the video for the first time, in the first few seconds, I was very skeptical and defensive about what I was about to see, but the video tumbled down my defence mechanisms with outrageous humour and I was able to connect with it very quickly. Outrageous, silly, hilarious, fun and thrilling were the emotions I was feeling when I saw it. Towards the end of the song, I suddenly realised that I was already dancing along to the tune! It still has that effect today. One last thing, but probably the most important point, is that I did not understand the lyrics the first time because the rap was too fast (despite I am a native Korean speaker). Yet, I was totally immersed by the visaul and sound. So I totally understand why people that don't understand Korean can enjoy the music to the same extent as Koreans. The enjoyment level does not change whether you understand it or not. That's the beauty of it.  
10/8/2012 2:30:14 AM #
Thanks for your comments Sean. I too agree. In fact, the mix of English with Korean rap adds to the viral nature of this phenomenon I believe.
10/9/2012 10:36:58 AM #
Thanks for your feedback Xydehead,
I agree that the success of Gangnam Style was likely an accident. The point is, something did make it become viral (other than randomness), and mounting research suggests we can explain and predict this viral success. (And "Hate" is a bit too strong I think. Go for a long walk in the park, breath in the miracles of life, and de-stress yourself).
Good luck.
Hans Thoma
10/10/2012 10:50:55 AM #
The video combined two powerful aspects:  1) A catchy tune, and 2) The opportunity to see someone "act the fool".  Sometimes the most powerful entertainers are people who deliberately open themselves up to ridicule.   The audience embraces them because they are just ordinary people, not supermodels or great dancers.
Rhonda Lee
10/24/2012 2:25:17 AM #
Regarding music videos, haven't they always tried to use the same techniques - quick changes, unusual scenics/situations paired to the music.  I think back in the '80's when Much Music and other TV music videos were popular this existed.  Perhaps only the medium and level of access is changing - so that now Record and Label Companies are the "middle men" that can be taken out of the equation with the artist (if they can fund a full video production) being able to go direct to Youtube, upload and sell their music directly.  I think this is already happening, so curious if this will just become a more international phenomenon for artists.
10/24/2012 10:44:39 AM #
Thanks for your comments Rhonda,
But I think the key is evoking emotion, and structuring it in the right way. Sure, some of those early music videos did create strong emotion (e.g., Cindy Lauper's True Colors), and they did go "viral" without the help of social media. Psy's music video is unique. There is very little element of "cool", but strong on self deprecation, an uncannily catchy tune, humor, and surprise. This is not usually seen in regular music videos.
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About Brent Coker

Brent Coker

Hi. I’m Dr Brent Coker, an internet consumer psychologist, and inventor of Webreep. Here I blog mostly about my research, and how customers behave on the web! 


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