by Michael O'Neill
September 20th, 2012

If your job is to know what Asia’s young consumers are doing online, and how to engage them, the rise of K-Pop’s viral sensation Gangnam Style is a subject that refuses to go away.

If you live in Asia and haven’t heard of it, you really should have.

Just as the controversial Kony 2012 YouTube video dominated web-geek water cooler chat for the first half of 2012 (with a paltry 92 million views), PSY’s rap parody of the Seoul suburb of Gangnam has taken over the second half.

And three months after it launched we’re still talking about it.

I had a meeting last week about media engagement which turned, in the blink of an eye, into a ‘Gangnam’ brainstorm. We screened the video and ended up analysing the reasons for its incredible success: ‘It’s very, very funny,’ said one person. ‘It’s an ironic poke-in-the-eye of one of Seoul’s uber posh suburbs,’ said another.

As Kony showed, you can’t really escape a viral video — it has a habit of cutting across stereotypes and demographics and consuming everything including client minds, largely because everyone would like a YouTube video that draws more than 218 million views (and counting) and notches up 1 million retweets.

Naturally, our job is to bring an ounce of perspective to videos like this, which can be quite a tough challenge, when they feature a chubby guy rolling his wrists and fist-pumping the air like a rodeo cowboy.

But in the case of said chubby rapper, this didn’t come from nowhere — K-Pop, and more broadly Korean culture, had already began globalising in 2011 off the back of more than 2 billion YouTube views of its bands between January and December (240 million of those views were from the US).

As we tell clients, virality isn’t an exact science and there are no set ingredients. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. But there are few corners of Asia that haven’t been influenced by Korean culture in recent years. The BBC found K-Pop fanatics in the Indian state of Manipur in the northeast part of the country, after Bollywood movies had been banned. K-Pop’s influence dripped into India’s broader culture as a consequence, with Korean fashion and hairstyles being picked up by India’s youth.

As unlikely as that anecdote seems, it happened more than two years ago. With the endorsement of Korean culture made by US President Barack Obama in March it’s clear that ‘Gangnam Style’ was riding an already large global wave. By luck or design, it just happened to be at the right time.

Rob O’Brien is media specialist, Singapore, at Weber Shandwick

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