How to Stand Out – The Art and Science of Planking

by Nathan Johnson

Recently, I’ve been obsessed with planking.  And I’m in good company.  Justin Bieber Katy PerryDwight Howard, even Huge Hefner – all of them are planking (not together I hope). If you’ve become hooked on planking, then you know exactly how much fun it is.  If you’ve never heard of planking before, that’s OK too – you still have at least another week or two to jump on the bandwagon before it becomes uncool.

The rules are pretty easy to grasp.  From the official Planking Facebook page, here how to do it:

  1. You must always lay face down, ensuring your face remains expressionless for the duration of the Plank.
  2. Your legs must remain straight, and together with toes pointed.
  3. Your arms must be placed by your side, held straight and fingers pointed.
  4. You must make it known that you are Planking. Saying ‘I am Planking’ usually get this across. Sternly announcing it will ensure a good result.
  5. Your safety should always be considered. Properly thought through Planking procedures should always go to plan. Never put your self at undue risk.
  6. Every Plank that is captured must be named.
How could something so simple and so stupid become so popular? And what could it possibly teach us about marketing?

Creativity & Restraint

Are brains are incredibly good at filtering everything we experience into two camps: things we need to pay attention to, and things we can ignore.  Most of the thing we see or hear throughout the day falls into the second bucket (and most of marketing does too).  Which is actually a good thing.  Otherwise, we would drive ourselves mad paying attention to a thousands of unimportant details and irrelevant marketing.

How do we decide what to pay attention to? If you want a scientific answer, you’d have to ask a Neurologist – who would probably give you a long boring answer that you and I wouldn’t understand  So I’ll give you the marketing answer: it’s all about the context.  When we see something we would expected in a given context, we usually just tune it out (unless we are specifically looking for it).  For instance, in New York City, a massive crowd of people walking through the streets is not that unusual, and eventually you will just tune it out.  But now imagine you are walking through a small town in Nebraska and saw a massive crowd walking through the streets. Would you stop and pay attention? Absolutely.   Why? Because its unexpected relative to that context.

Most of us have also learned over time that most of the things in life that actively try to demand our attention are probably worth ignoring.  This is a smart move on the part of our brain, because if something was genuinely worth paying attention to, it wouldn’t have try so hard to tell us so.

Herein lies the brilliance of planking.  First, it plays with our expectations of what people should be doing in a given context.  This is what makes it creative. Second, it does it in a way that surprising restrained.  This is what makes it irresistibly curious.  No one is shouting at you to pay attention to the plank. Quite the opposite.  And it’s this combination of acting out of context and with apparent disregard for attention that makes planking so powerful.

Chick-Fil-A is brilliant at applying these principles.  First, the idea behind their campaign – having cows encourage people to eat more chicken – shows them playing with context (cows selling chicken) and showing surprising restraint (just compare the amount of copy in Chick-Fil-A ad vs. a Wendy’s ad).  But they take it even a step further with their billboards.  They play with the context of the billboard medium itself.  While billboards are typically treated by marketers as just a large static print ad, Chick-Fil-A treats the space like its own outdoor theatre, with cows caught in the act of vandalizing the billboard with their mantra to eat more chicken.   Just brilliant.

Originality Is Not The Goal

While planking may be a relatively new fad,  the idea of planking is not.   Modern planking is generally accepted to have began in Australia and New Zealand (where it was originally called the “lying down game”), but planking can trace its roots even earlier. Tom Green did  a bit on MTV over two decade ago called “dead guy” that looks suspiciously like planking. Snoopy was “planking” on top of his dog house back in the ‘50s.   And recent hieroglyphs I uncovered (and did absolutely no photoshop manipulation to) may very well show the first plank in recorded history.

What’s my point? Just that planking is not new or  “original.”  And that’s OK.  The goal shouldn’t be about originality.  The goal is about ingenuity.  Its about finding new and better ways to apply ideas,  most of which either already exist or are just derivatives of previous ideas.

The is especially true in marketing your business.  In a very real sense, everything has been done before.  Famed advertising critic, James Garfield, talks about this a lot in his book And Now a Few Words From Me: Advertising’s Leading Critic Lays Down the Law, Once and For All.  (Great book, but as you can tell from the title, brevity is not his strong suit.) In one section, he tells the story of the first time he say the Energizer Bunny commercial:

On the screen came a commercial for Nasatene Mist, some nasal decongestant. The spot began with some suffering wretch on his lawn, sniffing flowers and moaning, in misery, “Oh, my sinuses!” Then came the obligatory lab-coated presenter flogging the advertised product: “Only Nasatene has Muconol, the patented. . . . “ The brand was new to me, but the format was so familiar it was as if it were bolted together on some patent-medicine-ad assembly line. “I can’t believe people get paid to produce this crap,” I said to myself. Next thing I knew, a pink, drum-whacking Energizer bunny intruded on the scene and walked straight across the fake “Nasatene” spot, “going and going.” I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time I gave a television commercial a standing ovation.
He goes on to describe his joy as this happened not just once, or  twice, but three time in a row, with a corny fake brand commercial being trumped by the energizer bunny walking across the screen. The campaign didn’t win any awards at Cannes that year, though, because another brand, Carling, had pulled the same trick a few years prior.  That’s right, the campaign idea was not original. But Garfield argues that that isn’t the point
The Energizer bunny wasn’t brilliant because it was original. It was brilliant because it was right. I mean, if novelty turns you on, may I suggest the Guinness Book of World Records? I believe Underwater Bowling Ball Juggling is wide open.
So originality for its own sake is NOT the goal. The goal should be find the best tool or method to solve the problem at hand and apply it better than anyone else does. You could be the first one to plank in a Arby’s parking lot, but who cares?

100% Commitment

Nothing is worse than a failed plank.  You will just look foolish and lose all credibility.  You’ll be like the kid in high-school who tries too hard to become popular, and so ends up even more unpopular.  Check out this video from “The Talk” where they all pretend like they are cool and try to plank.   Literally none of them plank right, and they just look stupid.  As the youtube user menofthemorph correctly notes in the comments, “FAIL – your face needs to be down when planking.”  And to quote user m16police, “DOES ANYONE ELSE WANT TO BITCH-SLAP THEM?”

Well put, m16police.

Marketers go half-way all the time.  They do it because they want to do something that is both “safe” and something that “get attention.”  And it just isn’t possible.  For every great idea, there will be someone who says, “that’s great, but let’s just tone it down a little bit.”  But most great ideas are all or nothing.  Either commit or don’t.    I would have loved to have been in the room when the idea was first presented to chick-fil-a to have giant cows dangling from their billboards.  The finance team probably said, “That’s a great idea, but do you really need the dangling cow? That triples the cost of this thing.” And then the regulatory team said, “He guys, with all the pressure that PETA is putting on us for using cows in our commercials, do we really want to rock the cradle with this billboard?” And then the HR team said.. oh wait, that’s right.  No one invited HR…

Anyway, my point is just that great ideas aren’t so easy to scale down.  Go big, do it right, or don’t do it all.  Otherwise, m16police will want to bitch slap you, too.

Expecting Backlash

There is always a percentage of people in the world who are not fun.  They will hate it when you do something awesome.  Their motivation may be well-intentioned and sincere.  Or they may just be trying pivot off what you are doing to bring attention to themselves.  Either way, this is a sign you are doing something extraordinary.  Great ideas almost always polarizing.

Within the backlash, there are usually some valid points.  Critics of planking in the media have reported heavily on the case of a 20-year old man who fell 7 stories to his death after foolishly attempting to plank on a railing. Bottom line – this guy was an idiot – and the whole sport shouldn’t be condemned because of his foolish actions.

So when there is a backlash, take the feedback, adjust if necessary, but don’t try to please everyone.


When one idea is successful, there are sure to be spinoffs. Now, in addition to planking, there is owling, leisure diving,  coneing and a whole host of other wacky ideas.   Here’s a quick run down on each:

Owling - The self-proclaimed evolution of planking. It’s similar to planking but involves perching yourself on objects like… well… like you’re an owl. Definitely not as visually surprising or socially uncomfortable as planking.  Also, its way too obvious. Thus, I don’t think it will be the next planking.

Leisure Diving - This one has some major promise, as it involved real skill and coordination, and the pictures can be hilarious.  But it doesn’t challenge social norms in the same way as planking.  And it lacks a lot of the viral impact that public planking can bring (unless you are leisure diving into a pool in the middle of a city center?) Also, it is a very seasonal activity. I think it will do quite well as a niche sport, but not with the same mass appeal of planking.

Coneing - The most bizarre of the three.  This is that act of going through a drive-through at a fast food restaurant (like McDonalds), ordering an ice-cream cone, and then grabbing it by the ice-cream top instead of the cone.  Hard to explain. Just watch this video.  I think this will remain a niche activity primarily for 16-25 white males.

How is this applicable for business?  Wherever their is a successful idea, there is usually room for derivative ideas.  Even if they never become as big as the original idea, they can still ride on the momentum of the original idea to become substantial forces. If you find a trend that has a wide enough user base, see if you can create a sub-category of this trend.  Having some attachment to the broader trend is sure to give you a better chance of getting your idea off the ground than starting from scratch.

Happy Planking

Well, I hope that was a helpful explantation of planking and some of its implications for business.  I’d love your comments at the end, but first, I here are some images of planking (and planking FAILS) to leave you with!


Egyptian Planking

Little does Pharaoh realize that just behind him, on the rafters, Babo was doing the first plank in recorded history - image courtesy of The Nathan Institute of Photoshopped Egyptian Art

Planking in front of cops

"Hey Bob, take a look at this! This kid's lying motionless face down at the grass by my feet, Should I do anything?" "No, he's probably just planking." "Oh. That's cool"

Planking at Disney

Perfect execution and synchronization in a completely unexpected context. The perfect moment is captured on film as Pluto and Mickey are visibly stunned.

Planking in the Museum

While most of her classmates were wasting their time looking at the priceless work of art, Susie was busy creating a timeless piece of performance art.

Planking at the Bowling Alley

Extra points for doing this on Neon Bowling Night. But he could have taken this to the next level by doing this in the middle of someone else's lane.

Justin Bieber tries to plank - and FAILS

Can you say FAIL? Good try Justin Bieber, but this is horrible. Maybe you'll have better luck at conening.

Chick-Fil-A Billboard

Chick-Fil-A knows how to do it right. Another brilliant installation. This is the marketing equivalent of a perfect plank.

Times Square at Night

This is the worst possible way to try to bring attention to yourself. Its like screaming in a room full of screaming people. FAIL!



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Have you ever seen a live planking? Ever done it yourself? What would it look like for your business to “plank”?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hollis August 17, 2011 at 2:51 pm

BRILLANT. Yeah… at my hospital where i work (sorta), one girl has upped the ante with “backbending.” An answer to the unflexible nature of the plank. ie: every time someone at work planks (is that how you use that word properly?!?), she tries to get in on the photo with a backbend. LOVE it. She’s nuts, and laughs in the face of the “owling” phenom because she claims it is equally easy, but not everyone can execute the backbend. LOL.


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Copyright © 2011 Nathan Johnson