Digitally tricked-out vending machines keep popping up around the globe, surprising and delighting consumers with new gimmicks and free samples.
Local goodwill is the endgame if you take the activations at face value. But in truth, they’re plays for views on YouTube. “The vending machines have very little to do with it,” said Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “It’s more of a publicity stunt to get shares and hope that content goes viral.”
Coca-Cola is the standard-bearer. Its videos of machines like the one trading free sodas for hugs in Singapore were widely viewed. A Coke Zero video of a machine sending consumers running through a James Bond-style gauntlet in Belgium for free movie tickets to Skyfall has racked up 10 million views since October. It also has had nearly a million Facebook and Twitter shares, per video tracker Unruly Media.
Other brands have caught on. Agency Joe Public in Johannesburg is moving towards investing 5 percent of clients’ budgets in experiential and new technology around which it can build YouTube buzz, said Pepe Marais, the agency’s chief creative officer. In July, the shop launched a video for Dutch coffee seller Douwe Egberts that shows a vending machine, placed in a South African airport, that would only give coffee to consumers who yawned at it. The video was blogged about by U.S. websites like The Huffington Post and Gawker.
The Douwe Egberts spot cost just $20,000, including the machine, per Marais.
So what makes these vending machines so appealing? It’s about their novelty, as well as reality TV-style voyeurism, pure and simple: watching people navigate—and sometimes take orders from—technology they don’t fully understand.
“The desire to be entertained is universal. Watching other people do silly things ... that’s a universal thing as well,” said Erik De Roos, head of account management at Clemenger BBDO Adelaide in Australia. The agency’s video of people endlessly pushing a button for Fantastic Delites rice snacks garnered global attention, scoring more than 2.7 million YouTube views since July 2012.
A Pepsi machine in Belgium that trades free sodas for Facebook likes, meanwhile, comes across as a play for consumers’ information. Launched in May, its video has racked up 95,000 views. “The more that something is trying to be sold, the less interested consumers are in sharing it,” said Berger.
Fatigue with such gadgets may not be an issue, so long as future versions continue to offer something original. Case in point: Coca-Cola’s wildly popular, feel-good ad featuring interactive vending machines that try to promote cultural understanding by getting Indians and Pakistanis to interact with each other. “Whatever medium we have, the challenge is to find creative ways to make it fresh,” said Leo Burnett ecd Jon Wyville, who worked on the campaign.