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How the 'No Pants Subway Ride' spawned copycats

Improv Everywhere comes up with original, creative ideas, such as its annual "No Pants Subway Ride." Advertisers have openly copied several of the group's antics in marketing campaigns.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but Charlie Todd is getting a little tired of being flattered.

Mr. Todd is the 32-year-old founder of Improv Everywhere, a loose collective of performers - they prefer the term "agents" - who gather together every few weeks to perpetrate episodes of whimsy on random New Yorkers. One of their most famous events is the annual wintertime " No Pants Subway Ride ," in which groups of volunteers infiltrate the New York City transit system sans pantalons, to the quiet amusement of other riders.

In the 10 years since its founding, the group has surprised newlyweds with an impromptu wedding reception, created a Ghostbusters scene in the New York Public Library, and staged the rescue of an apparently suicidal man who wanted to end his life by jumping from the ledge of a midtown Manhattan building - only one metre above the ground. More than 100 videos of their exploits are available on the group's YouTube channel.

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Mr. Todd's most successful video shows more than 200 agents as they wander into the Great Hall at Grand Central Terminal and then freeze in place for exactly five minutes, to the dumbfounded reactions of onlookers. Since being posted on YouTube in early 2008, it has been viewed more than 26 million times. About a year after its creation, the wireless carrier T-Mobile's British division staged its own version of a train station flash mob, bringing together hundreds of dancers at London's Liverpool Street railway station for a 2½-minute choreographed routine to a medley of old pop tunes. As the viewing numbers for the resulting video spiralled into the millions, Mr. Todd received a flood of wearying e-mails from people asking if he was behind the commercial.

"You just gotta' roll with it," said Mr. Todd this week, on the phone from his home in New York. "Particularly in this day and age, anything that becomes popular on the Internet is something that advertisers and marketers are going to pay attention to and try to imitate. If you're creating content on the Internet, you just have to be prepared for spinoffs and parodies and copycats."

Still, it grated when, apparently inspired by another video of Improv Everywhere agents greeting strangers at JFK airport, last fall T-Mobile made its own ad with hundreds of people serenading strangers as they arrived at Heathrow's Terminal 5. (Worse: like Mr. Todd, T-Mobile also called its video Welcome Back.) The wireless company's copying of (or being inspired by) Mr. Todd's work points up the parasitic nature of the advertising world, which has always blithely adopted pop culture trends for cheap and easy vehicles to deliver client messages. As Mr. Todd noted, the T-Mobile spot went on to inspire "thousands and thousands and thousands of copies," thus helping to spur its own breed of popular culture. (And a fast exhaustion with flash mobs.)

Not that he's completely antagonistic toward marketers: Last year, Mr. Todd was a guest at the Cannes advertising festival, where he helped create an improv scene on the Croisette, and next week he will be a featured speaker at Future Flash, the annual two-day conference outside Collingwood, Ont., hosted by the Institute of Communication Agencies. There, he'll be telling the story of Improv Everywhere, using it as a springboard to offer some examples of both canny and ill-advised bids for viral video success.

It is notoriously tough to ensure a video goes viral - unless it features cats and (new this week!) promises to contain photographs of a dead Osama bin Laden - but Mr. Todd seems to have found a formula. Which brings us to lesson No. 1: Don't have a formula. That is, don't try to copy your own, or somebody else's, success. One of the reasons Improv Everywhere fans keep coming back for more is that they never know what the troupe is going to conjure next.

"We've always tried to stay ahead of the curve and to come up with new ideas and not rest on our laurels, not try to repeat our successes," Mr. Todd says. "As Frozen Grand Central went viral and people were doing videos where they were freezing in place all over the world, I could have declared myself the King of the Freeze and done a new freeze video every week. It might have been successful for a couple of months, but then it would have become a fad and it would have looked passé."

"For us, a hit doesn't mean, 'Let's keep doing the same thing, it means, Great, what's next? How can we surprise people?'" he says. "That's something brands should be considering too - not just trying to recreate the success of what's currently hot," like last year's Old Spice phenomenon, which dozens of marketers tried to imitate.

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"When a brand comes along and does something like what Old Spice did last year, nobody had really done that. We hadn't seen commercial viral videos where they were making them in real time and responding to YouTube comments, Reddit posts, celebrity tweets in real time."

Like T-Mobile's train station dance, dozens of marketers have tried to copy Old Spice. Just this week, Edge shaving gel released a new TV spot that, like the revivified Procter & Gamble brand, features a swaggeringly confident man strutting through a quick succession of scenes and set-ups. That copy-cat instinct, Mr. Todd says, "I think is misguided. I think you should be figuring out what your new idea is that's going to change things."

Mr. Todd will also offer some examples of flash mobs gone awry, including one especially excruciating video, shot on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, of a few dozen chipper performers in Dr. Pepper T-shirts boogieing to the soda's theme song. Posted in January, 2010, the video has been seen about 62,000 times, almost exclusively - to judge from the comments - by masochists. Three weeks ago, someone left this riposte: "Flash mobs went downhill when they became commercialized. They're supposed to be ordinary people doing it for fun not for advertising."

Mr. Todd says the lessons of that video and others are the following: "Being authentic, being original, doing things for the right reason; creating content and staging projects for the fun of it, for the love of it. Creating events that people want to be a part of, rather than creating content that is so focused on your brand and your product and product benefits, and all these specific minute things that ultimately no one cares about but you."

He does some consulting for marketing companies, though he's careful to keep that work and his life with Improv Everywhere separate: the only connection is that the corporate work effectively subsidizes the other stuff. "I get a lot of brands that approach me and say: Oh, we want to do an Improv Everywhere project, where everybody shows up in Times Square with our brand's name on it."

Over the phone, he seems to shudder a little at the thought. "I have to write back and explain, 'That's not what we do.'"

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