It was just a stupid clothes hanger. That was pulled from a stupid suit. That became a stupid video. That has now been viewed more than two million times.
Admittedly, in my role as a TV news guy I’ve shared with our viewers dozens if not hundreds of viral videos. I never expected to be part of one.
The on-air mishap of my colleague Steve Frazier pulling a wire hanger out of his suit I can assure you was no stunt. If Steve was guilty of anything, it was rushing to simply make his camera shot. But within hours, Steve was getting calls from Italy and our assignment desk was fielding inquiries from the UK’s “Guardian” newspaper. Then there was NBC’s “Today” show, “Ellen,” “Time,” “The Huffington Post” and “The Weather Channel.”
The coat hanger gaffe became such a cultural phenomenon that it even became a question on the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I happen to know this because I was on vacation and in the audience with my family at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago. When the question was read to P.J. O’Roarke, my teenaged daughters cheered—I just wanted to disappear into the seat. Then, when I approached scorekeeper Bill Kurtis and host Mike Pesca after the show, Pesca laughed and said, “You work with Steve Frazier!” (Picture 2)
What I now call “hanger gaffe” is not only a statement on 21st century media culture, it’s also a useful case study on what makes videos go viral. Advertising and consumer behavior researcher John Eighmey offers an outstanding index of factors that affect the propensity to share content. Videos though, are unique. With that in mind I’ve constructed my own viral video model that contains five essential factors. (Figure 1)
Accessibility: This is basic and essential. The video needs to exist on an accessible and sharable channel such as YouTube and increasingly Facebook.
Familiarity: The scenario must be recognizable. In this case, a television newscast where the audience has already formed its own set of expectations about what happens in a news program.
Authenticity: Is it real, genuine, and not staged?
Surprise: A sudden event or occurrence that deviates from normal expectations. In this case Steve pulling the hanger from his jacket.
Enjoyment: An emotional response. Entertainment or outrage.
The model essentially needs all of these elements to come together for a video to go viral. But the model also closely follows the long established Appraisal Theory of consumer behavior. (Figure 2) In this case the viewer makes a cognitive assessment of video which leads to an emotional response. The response forms attitudes on actions including whether to “like” the video or share it among friends. Likewise, the emotional response can also lead to outage depending upon the content of the video—such as a violent police arrest.
To be honest there are several contributing factors as to why Steve’s mishap became a temporary world-wide sensation. Among them is the fact that everyone loves TV news bloopers. There’s a reason why they’re a staple on late night comedy shows from David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon—viewers love to see presumably credible people make mistakes. In this case it was a big part of the enjoyment factor.
As for the viral video model, Steve’s “hanger gaffe” fits it like a good hanger. We’ve certainly had our fun. And now… on with the news.