OK Go: How State Farm Insurance Got Behind a Viral Rock Video


The pop-rock band OK Go created the template for viral-music-video fame in 2006 with its simple clip for the catchy "Here It Goes Again," which you may recall as "the treadmill video." In it, the members of the band dance an intricately choreographed routine on eight running treadmills. It quickly became a viral sensation, attracting one million sets of eyeballs in its first week on YouTube.

The band has spent much of the last eight months producing another visually astonishing video. "This Too Shall Pass" is a one-shot tracking of the machinations of an intricately designed "Rube Goldberg machine," an incredible perpetual-motion chain reaction full of "How'd they do that?" moments.

But look closely at the very beginning, when a bandmember tips off a row of dominoes with a toy truck. The truck has a logo on it, for insurance giant State Farm. The Illnois-based company helped fund the clip, which took many months and 60 engineers to fully execute. At the end of the video, State Farm gets a wholly transparent "Thank You" screenshot from the band.

An Insurance Giant Says "OK, Go"

The unlikely marriage was arranged after the band came up with the video concept in August. "Our guitarist Andy Ross sent me a little clip of a Rube Goldberg machine online a year ago," recalls lead vocalist Damian Kulash (pictured, at left). "Obviously, all Rube Goldberg machines have this universal 'wow' factor. I went into this phase where I was madly searching the Internet to see who else was making Rube Goldberg machines these days." The band's fascination with the intricate contraptions led to them conceptualizing a music video around the idea of one long Goldbergian run.

Kulash put out word that he was looking for engineers, and State Farm was looking for artists to support financially. And suddenly, OK Go's label, EMI-owned Capitol Records, had put the band and the insurance company in touch.

Kulash met with company representatives last fall, while engineers were already busy at work on the devices employed in the video. "'I remember getting on a call with them and expecting to hear this really conservative marketer-speak, and my opening volley was basically like, 'We need to make rock videos, and if it's not a rock video, it'll backfire for everyone. If it looks like shilling, people know it. Our fans are as media-savvy as we are, everybody knows what they're looking at. Let's focus on what you're actually doing here -- you're supporting the arts, and that's awesome, and our fans will love you for that, but they will not love you for trying to insert yourself into our art.'"

State Farm not only went for the pitch, it gave the band clearance to realize its vision, with only small nods to the company's sponsorship. "I was so pleased in the end, because I think the branding is very tasteful, and they didn't weigh on us in any creative way whatsoever," Kulash says. "They came to the set for about 20 minutes."

State Farm is equally thrilled with the collaboration. "The guys really had the idea for the video ahead of time, but they were partners in the truest sense of the word," says Todd Fischer, State Farm's manager of national sponsorships. "They were leading the brainstorming themselves, in terms of how we could best integrate State Farm....Both of us really put our heads together as to what would be most credible and most natural."

The video was released on March 1 and was streamed 6 million times within six days.

Capitol Offense

Shortly after the video's release, OK Go got into a conflict with Capitol over whether the version streaming on YouTube would be embeddable on external Web sites. EMI's policy with its music videos is to keep them so they can be viewed only within the confines of YouTube, so as to maximize the revenue brought in by banner ads. Last month, Kulash wrote a New York Times op-ed bemoaning the policy's nickel-and-dime nature and noted that six months of views for "Here It Goes Again" video, after it was rendered unembeddable by EMI, had netted the band a total of $27.77.

But the label's attempts to control aspects of a band's music-video output is nothing new, Kulash says. "An interesting thing about videos that's often overlooked is that in general, they're not made by the bands," he says. "For most of the history of what we think of as muusic videos, they have been, very boldly, just advertisements. A band makes music with the financial support of a label, then the label goes out and pays for which commericals are being made. The band has input as far as commerical and director, and the band is in the video in a similar way that a Toyota is in a Toyota ad."

After the flare-up, State Farm reportedly paid an undisclosed sum of money to sponsor an embeddable video on other sites.

A Break-Up...and State Farm is There

This week, OK Go announced it's parting ways with EMI to start a company called Paracadute on April 1. The band will also take over promotional duties for its new album, Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, whch Capitol released in January. Blue Colour has sold 25,000 copies.

Kulash is speaking at this weekend's SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, about viral-video techniques, and the band will embark on a U.S. tour nexst month that will include stops at the Bonnaroo and Sasquatch festivals.

"We're a band," Kulash says. "We make music. We write songs. But the boundaries of what it is to be a rock band or a creative prson or an artist in general are always shifting and changing, and we're lucky to be here at a time when all these boundiares just fell down."