Rise Of The Machines: How Rube Goldberg Inspired A Decade Of Creative Copycats

Look! Another RGM. What is it about Goldberg’s contraptions that’s made them such an enduring commercial form and reliable source of web traffic?

Rise Of The Machines: How Rube Goldberg Inspired A Decade Of Creative Copycats


In support of its new Android tablets, Sony just launched a series of web films based on a Rube Goldberg Machine.

A Rube Goldberg Machine is a mechanism that is disproportionately complicated relative to the simple task it’s designed to… Oh, what? You know what a Rube Goldberg machine is because it’s THE MOST RELENTLESSLY EMPLOYED VISUAL DEVICE OF THE LAST 10 YEARS? Right.

For anyone who’s been alive as long as YouTube, the RGM is a familiar sight indeed. Of course people have been building these exercises in engineering excess since Reuben Goldberg, an engineer turned cartoonist, illustrated the Self Operating Napkin.  But they became a pop culture mainstay, and an ad standby, in 2003 when Wieden+Kennedy London stunned audiences not yet numbed to the pleasures of the devices with Honda “Cog.” And the machines have just kept on coming ever since.

What is it about Goldberg’s contraptions that’s made them such an enduring commercial form and reliable source of web traffic? In a world gone mad, are people drawn to the reassuring clunk of the RGM’s cause and effect cascade?

“Everyday physics – the kind we’re used to seeing – is riddled with messy failures,” says Adam Sadowsky, president of Syyn Labs, the company behind some of the most spectacular RGMs in recent years. “We’re used to seeing a dropped object land on the floor – maybe break, maybe go skittering away under the couch. But we’re not at all used to seeing a falling object release another object, which rolls down a ramp, which releases a thousand ping pong balls. Long, extended strings of events like this don’t occur in front of our eyes very often, and when they do they satisfy our desire for order. An RGM is exactly that – a string of moments of perfect harmony eked out from what could so easily be chaos. The unlikely nature of the assembly, the surprise at interconnectedness of unexpected things, and the majesty of the synchronicity that occurs in an unbroken transfer of energy when one of these machines runs, all make for a magical, don’t-want-to-blink experience. Plus, we like making things fall down.”


Perhaps one online commenter on a popular RGM video summed it up best:
“I like the part where the one thing makes that other thing start doing something.”

Submit your theories below, after you’ve enjoyed a small sample of RGMs from the brand and entertainment worlds, rated according to their cling-clangy, ding-dongy, gew-gawy drip-droppiness.

Sony Tablets “Two Will”


With their unique shapes, Sony’s upcoming S1 and S2 tablets represent a notable departure from conventional tablet design. Yet, the brand chose one of advertising’s most recognizable conceits for the 5-part web video campaign heralding the fall launch of the devices. Here, Sony takes a classy approach to the Machine; the reactions, set off mainly by colorful balls (and lasers!) unfold against a slick grey industrial backdrop and the tablets themselves figure gracefully into the action.
Not terribly original, but, frankly, anything looks good contrasted with the insufferable new round of Apple’s iPad advertising.

Rube Rating: 5 Dropping Wingnuts


2D Photography “Rube Goldberg”


It’s not often a Toronto-based photography studio scores a viral hit with an ad campaign. But 2D Photography knew the three-word recipe for web video success and created a massively ambitious 4-minute interpretation of Goldberg’s creation. 2D gets extra points for the fact that the reactions are almost exclusively driven by photography gear, for its smooth product placement and for its touching show of patriotism. Go Canada!
Rube Rating: 7 Falling Dominoes


OK Go “This Too Shall Pass”


If we’re measuring RGM success by sheer audience, OK Go’s This Too Shall Pass is the clear winner, with more than 28 million views since its March 2010 debut. Since the band was already known for its quirky videos, the stakes were high. The heavy lifting fell to Syyn Labs (The League of Extraordinary Nerds) and the L.A.-based production company/wizard collective didn’t disappoint.
For old school, lo-fi, reaction-packed RGM value, the four minute video is hard to beat. 
Rube Rating: 8 Hamster Wheels


Google “Science Fair Experiment”


Yes, even the Goog is powerless against Goldberg’s pull. But, when you’ve got a nerd factory looking to promote the nerdiest possible project, the Google Science Fair, it seems inevitable that fancies would turn to this nerdiest of tropes. Google looked to proven RGM performers Syyn Labs to create this almost too understated chain of science.
Google and Syyn get marks for pyrotechnics, for subtle touches and for appealing to the target demographic. Fast Company has a thorough breakdown of Science Fair Experiment here

Rube Rating: 7 Dippy Birds


AHO/Touch “Nearness”


In some ways, this eye-popping video from London design company Berg and director/designer Timo Arnall calls to mind the honey badger more than any other mere RGM. It’s so badass it doesn’t even need things to touch other things. The 50-second video, created in 2009 for the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and Touch, a research project on Near Field Communications, depicts a series of quiet reactions driven by the invisible touch of NFC and RFID technology.
Berg’s Jack Schulze says the project was inspired by “Cog,” The Way Things Go and by Japanese kids show Pythagoras Switch.

Rube Rating:  8 Oyster Card Swipes


Hema “Rube Goldberg”


In this much-awarded 2008 RGB for Dutch bargain chain Hema from agency CCCP, the reactions are virtual. A waste basket on Hema’s site tips and causes controlled chaos among the other saleable goods. A nice twist on an old favorite, it also wins on pure product integration.
(Original page here).

Rube Rating:  6 Pinwheels


Sprint “Firsts”


Another project that celebrates originality with the trusty RGM device. This 2010 Sprint spot from Goodby Silverstein & Partners promotes the Evo 4G phone with a gorgeous, Goldbergian chain of human milestones. Starting with the wheel, invention crashes into invention, culminating, of course in a heroic shot of the phone. Excellent production values, but by the time this spot broke, we all had a little bit of RGM fatigue.

Rube Rating:  6 Balls on Rails


Honda “Cog”


The one that started it all. Sure, critics complained it borrowed too liberally from Fischli and Weiss’ 1987 film, The Way Things Go (which also doubtless inspired this artist). But the 2003 spot from Wieden+Kennedy London and director Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, which featured an RGM made out of car parts, was an advertising bombshell.
At the time, it felt shockingly different to other ads, particularly other car ads. It cleaned up on the awards circuit, inspired parodies and countless imitators and it ushered in a prolific creative period for Wieden London, which followed up with other big hits like 2004’s “Grrr.” 

Rube Rating: 9 Vibrating Woofers


Follow me on Twitter: @tiezzi

About the author

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Co.Create. She was previously the editor of Advertising Age’s Creativity, covering all things creative in the brand world