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Why the Miami Heat's Harlem Shake was better than all others

Why the Miami Heat's Harlem Shake was better than all others Mallory Russell

You knew it was coming. While branded video in February was defined by Super Bowl campaigns, March was about only one trend: the Harlem Shake.

Brands were quick to hop on the Harlem Shake train. We saw videos from Pepsi, Red Bull, AOL, McDonald's, Facebook, Google, Lululemon, Dr Pepper, Go Daddy, and Nintendo. The list goes on and on -- and on.

Most brand videos garnered, maybe, a couple of million views. That's nothing to scoff at. But when you compare it to the Miami Heat's Harlem Shake edition, it looks miniscule. In fact, the Miami Heat topped the iMedia Brands in Video Chart for March by garnering a True Reach score of more than 49 million views.

That number enabled the NBA team to beat out Google in the same month that it launched a campaign for the much-anticipated (but far from being available) Google Glass. And it beat out Pepsi Max, which scored a hit with its incredibly popular test-drive video featuring another sports great, Jeff Gordon. That campaign helped Pepsi rack up a True Reach of more than 42 million views, most of which came at the end of the month. Other newbies to the chart in March were NEFT Vodka, a Russian brand now popular for its incredibly violent ad, and Comic Relief, a U.K. charity.

Captains LeBron James and Dwayne Wade produced the Heat's video, which features the former dressed as (what else?) a king and the latter wearing a bear head. Other players featured dancing around the locker room include Mario Chalmers as Super Mario, Chris Andersen as a bird, Chris Bosh in a bathrobe and cowboy hat, and Ray Allen as the phantom of the locker room.

The Heat isn't the only professional sports team to take on the meme. (In fact, the Timberwolves created a pretty hilarious parody of the Heat's shake.) But the Heat's version is the most successful edition from a sports team or any brand. It ranked No. 2 out of all Harlem Shake editions, both branded and non-branded, and it's the team's most successful online content to date. On the Heat's YouTube page, the Harlem Shake accounts for 94 percent of views despite being only one of 128 videos uploaded to the page.

The Heat's video was just one of the more than 500 editions that helped the Harlem Shake meme reach 1 billion by the end of March. It only took the viral sensation 40 days -- from mid-February to late-March -- to reach the milestone. Accumulating an average of more than 20 million views a day, it is the fastest viral meme to hit the 1 billion mark; it did so twice as fast as Gangnam Style.

But even since February, people had been saying that the Harlem Shake was past its due date. So why did the meme get so popular to begin with and why did the Heat's version dominate every other brand version out there?

Here are four reasons that the Harlem Shake became a viral sensation:

Format: The format has a lot to do with it. The Harlem Shake is short. The 30-second time frame of the video means that it's easy for people to create their own version, and it's not a big time commitment for viewers. The length of the video also makes it an easy-to-consume piece of content for mobile devices.

Simplicity: The meme has a basic formula that is easy to reproduce with very little technical skill: Record 14 seconds of one person dancing, jump-cut to another 14 seconds of intense music playing as everyone dances in crazy costumes, end it all with two seconds of slurred sound and a slow-motion shot of the dancing group, and you have yourself a Harlem Shake meme. The idea of a formula is key here. It's difficult to sit down and come up with an entertaining, viral meme. But given an existing framework, it's not too hard to fill in the blanks with something really creative.

Global appeal: The Harlem Shake is in no way dependent on language, which helped it go global. Relying on physical humor instead of language allows more people to watch and more people to create.

Creative options: There is built-in anticipation. People watch a number of different versions -- even when they hate the Harlem Shake -- because there is always an element of surprise in terms of what a person or group is going to think up for the dance section after the jump cut.

So why was the Miami Heat's version more popular than videos from Red Bull or Google or Facebook? It's a pretty simple answer: LeBron James.

LeBron James is one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. Among athletes, he, along with Jeff Gordon, had the highest rates of recognition in 2012, according to Q Score. That shouldn't be totally surprising since the man has sponsorship deals with Nike, Coca-Cola, Samsung, McDonald's, Audemars Piguet, Dunkin' Donuts, State Farm, and Upper Deck.

James' public image took a big hit in 2010 when he decided to move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat -- often ominously written about in sports columns as "The Decision" -- but in the last year he won an NBA Championship, the NBA MVP award, and an Olympic gold medal. That makes a person pretty popular. The only other player to do that, by the way, is Michael Jordan.

The public is used to seeing James, but we often see him either in his office (i.e., the court), where he is all business, or in other brands' commercials, where his image has been crafted to fit the campaign brief. In contrast, in creating this video and joining in on the trend, he seems a little more like the rest of us. It's the same reason that the U.S. Olympic basketball team was so popular on Instagram during the Games. Showing pictures of the team on a Segway tour, at Johnny Rockets, or asleep on a bus showed just how normal they were.

And really, who doesn't like to see an incredibly famous multi-millionaire athlete behave like a complete fool? Throw in a few more famous millionaire athletes, some ridiculous costumes, and some even more questionable dance moves, and it's no wonder this video was a hit. For brands, it's not about just having a celebrity spokesperson; it's about using them in a way that surprises and engages the viewers.

Mallory Russell is content editor at Visible Measures.

iMedia's Top 10 Brands in Video chart, powered by Visible Measures, focuses on aggregated brand view counts across related social video ad campaigns. Each brand and campaign is measured on a True Reach basis, which includes viewership of both brand-syndicated and audience-driven video clips. The data are compiled using the patented Visible Measures platform, a constantly growing repository of analytic data on close to 400 million videos tracked across more than 300 online video destinations.

Note: This analysis does not include Visible Measures' paid-placement (e.g., overlays; pre-, mid-, and post-roll) performance data or video views on private sites. This chart does not include movie trailers, video game campaigns, TV show, or media network promotions. View counts are incremental by month.

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Mallory Russell is the Director of Content for Visible Measures. Prior to joining Visible Measures, Mallory wrote for Advertising Age and Business Insider. She also spent a few years in the San Francisco ad business at DraftFCB and Goodby,...

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