The fun theory
von Thomas Wagner | Feb 5, 2010

Let's be optimistic for a change and assume people can learn and be encouraged to change the habits that hang like a millstone round their necks - even if a glance at TV soaps, fast food and global warming might leave us otherwise skeptical. Be that as it may, let's trust in our species' potential. Then the question certainly remains how people can best be persuaded to do something meaningful. Quite apart from the fact that, if it works out, no one still really knows what consequences the new behavior will have. But let's dispel the doubts. After all, in Sweden a new approach to all this is being taken.

Mankind, or so fun theory as it's called assumes, changes its behavior if the new behavioral pattern is more fun than the old one. Sounds good. And is immediately shown to be the case. Can you persuade people to use normal stairs instead of escalators, and thus move more? You can, the optimist cheers, and transform the tedious flights of stairs into something that resembles the keys on a piano. From now on each step resounds, each flight of stairs speaks a melody. At long last it's fun. Great.

But, or so the pessimist thinks, what holds for a staircase by no means applies to everything else, and if each flight of stairs were an instrument, then the additional sounds of the city would swiftly become unbearable. And: What will things be like five or ten days into the project? There you go. You get used to fun, too. And what just now seemed interesting is suddenly boring. And you go back to the escalator.

On the corresponding Website, and it even urges us to submit similar suggestions, we read that "This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people's behavior for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it's change for the better."
There are two further examples of how the theory can be applied, and both are as sweet as they are fleeting. In the one, a boring bottle bank is turned into a kind of slot machine; in the other, a banal litter basket in a park simulates what you throw into it - falling, falling, falling, crash, hitting the bottom. Both are evidently fun, both kindle curiosity, and both are successful - at least for a moment. And all of this is simply advertising for "the car", i.e., for Volkswagen.

So what substance is there to the possibility of using fun to change human behavior, and why has this been turned into an ad campaign? Surely no one will object to fun? When, in post-War Germany, the "Good Form" camp hoped that well-designed objects that were utilitarian could serve to nurture human aesthetic sensibilities, they did so with strong moral intentions. They wished to educate using a good example. Today, education is only allowed if it is fun. However nice and successful such playful campaigns may be, most of what must change is definitely not fun, for fun is not everything. Indeed, in the long run the argument that something is fun will hardly suffice to woo a change in behavior without addressing the products, the cars. "Fun driving" is not a new social value, but one that should be left in the bus lane.

And thus champions of the fun theory cannot even hope that Friedrich Schiller, the originator of the idea of the aesthetic education of man, is on their side. Schiller believed that the human is "only a whole being when at play", but play he construed precisely not as the instrumentalization of play by advertising and marketing.
Of course we must have fun. At least in advertising. Which just goes to prove that advertising is truly useless and that it is impossible to change its habits. Kurt Tucholsky once quipped that "Man, alongside the instinctive need to reproduce, and the need to eat and drink, has two passions: To make a noise and not to listen." But we wanted to be optimistic. Perhaps we should rely on a theory of rational insight. Which can be just as fun.

Piano stairs -
The world's deepest bin -