Suppose you’ve just taken the subway, and you need to climb up to street level. To exit the station, you can either take the stairs or the escalator. Which one do you use? Although the extra bit of exercise is the healthier choice, many people choose the escalator because of its ease.
But what if the stairs aren’t your average stairs - instead, they look like piano keys and stepping on one causes a piano note to be heard. Would this change your decision? Would the novelty and entertainment of the stairs outweigh the comfort and convenience of the escalator? These are the questions Volkswagen’s “The Fun Theory” ad campaign hoped to answer with their piano stairs experiment.
The Piano Stairs Experiment
The piano stairs experiment was part of The Fun Theory, an ad campaign run by the car company Volkswagen Sweden and the ad agency DDB Stockholm to promote Volkswagen’s new, more fuel-efficient brand. The groups turned a normal staircase at a subway station in Sweden into a “piano staircase,” where stepping on a stair produced a sound. Commuters were significantly more likely to choose the stairs over the escalator when the staircase was a piano than when it was a regular staircase.
In 2009, Volkswagen wanted an innovative way to promote its new environmentally-friendly BlueMotion Technologies brand, which emphasized fuel efficiency. Volkswagen partnered with the ad agency DDB Stockholm to devise a creative ad campaign. “As traditional advertising is becoming less effective … we believed we needed a more innovative approach to draw attention to BlueMotion,” DDB Stockholm deputy manager Lars Axelsson explained.
They dubbed their marketing campaign “The Fun Theory,” based on the idea that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.” The Fun Theory consisted of a series of videotaped experiments investigating whether making somewhat undesirable activities more entertaining could persuade individuals to make better choices. The most-watched of these videos was the piano stairs experiment, which debuted in October 2009.
Volkswagen chose a staircase at the Odenplan subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. The staircase was right next to an escalator. First, they tallied how many random subway commuters took the stairs versus the escalator on a typical day. Then, they made each step of the staircase produce a different sound when it was stepped on, like a piano. They found that 66% more commuters than normal opted to take the stairs when they were piano stairs.
A video of the experiment was put on YouTube and had over 23 million views as of July 2020, a little over ten years later. The brand advertising is light; the only mention of Volkswagen is the company’s logo at the end. Axelsson explained that this creates a positive association between Volkswagen and a better, more fun world.
Though far from a definitive experiment, the piano stairs experiment showed that making a task more fun can change people’s behavior for the better. Although walking up the stairs takes more effort than merely standing on an escalator, a significant number of commuters found that the enjoyment gained offset that cost. They made the healthier choice because it was presented in a new, entertaining way. This theory could be applied to other areas of life to help people make more sustainable choices, like going for runs, eating healthier, or picking up litter. The right thing to do and the fun thing to do don't have to be two different options.