Co.Design

How "Weeds" Became A Marketing High For MIT's Hybrid Bike Wheel

The Dyson Award-winning design project has been featured in every episode of the Showtime hit this season. How did that happen?

Fans of the marijuana-laced Showtime show Weeds might have noticed a rather progressive plot line weaving through this season’s hazy drug deals. When the character Andy Botwin moves to Copenhagen, he learns about a product called the Copenhagen Wheel, a bright red hub that can turn any bike into a electric hybrid. Botwin (who is played by Justin Kirk) brings the wheel back to New York City with plans to launch the wheel in the U.S. at his new bike shop--which fronts a weed dispensary, of course.

As any reader of Co.Design knows, the Copenhagen Wheel is a real product developed by MIT’s SENSEable Lab that won the prestigious James Dyson Award in the U.S. last year. So how did one of 2010's biggest design stories end up on a show about a pot-hustling mom?

Christine Outram, the Copenhagen Wheel’s product manager and MIT graduate who we interviewed last year, says she was contacted in March by the show’s executive producer, who wanted to feature the wheel as part of the story--with her blessing, of course. "They were definitely interested in representing it fairly," she tells Co.Design. "They sent us copies of the script and were very open about how it would be used." Soon Outram found herself visiting a faux-Copenhagen at the set in Studio City, where she answered questions from the writers and even assembled a prototype onto a bike to show them how it worked.

Inside the wheel is a 250-watt motor that can detect when you’re pedaling hard and supplement with stored power.

Executive producer Mark Burley tells Co.Design that the idea originated from the show’s writing team, who thought it was a perfect fit for the Copenhagen setting and Andy’s ecologically minded character. But they also liked the thought that they were promoting an innovative and sustainable new concept. "There’s definitely a tendency among the production and writing crew to be aware of these environmental features and be interested in cutting edge ideas," he says. "The fact that the storyline worked for Andy Botwin is convenient, but there’s definitely a certain attitude that’s held by the team." In earlier seasons, he notes, the team specifically chose to have the character Nancy Botwin, played by Mary Louise Parker, drive a Prius.

Design fans and bike geeks who watch Weeds may have rejoiced at the mention of one of the most exciting transportation announcements of last year. But those not familiar with the Copenhagen Wheel--likely, most of Weeds’ viewers--were left wondering: Was this thing real or a product invented by a Hollywood writers’ table? The curious found their way online, Googling themselves onto to the Copenhagen Wheel’s website and Facebook page, where some still wondered if this was part of creator Jenji Kohan’s universe.

Many new fans of the Copenhagen Wheel’s Facebook page found it via Weeds

Since season seven began airing in late June, Outram has seen a dramatic uptick in interest. "It has picked up incredibly," she says, noting that pre-Weeds she got about two inquiries per day through the site, now she gets an average of 10. "I’m always surprised that there are people who see products on TV and then look them up." Since the wheel is not yet commercially available, she says the Weeds appearance has been like free market research, proving that it’s a desirable product and that people understand how it works.

Burley says the team makes an effort to use real products whenever possible to help contribute to the authenticity of the show. But not all companies are as thrilled to have their brands appear in the same scene as a bong. "We’ve been rejected by a lot of companies for that reason," he says. "Some people will say, yes, you can use it, but we don’t want it associated with a scene with drugs in it." In this case, it was MIT’s cooperation that gave the wheel a more important role. "Once MIT allowed us to use the wheel, it became this whole storyline," he says. "It became a bigger part than was expected at the beginning because they were so positive and fairly liberal about how we were able to present it."

The Wheel can fit most bikes and will be commercially available in 2012.

On the MIT side, the school did require running it by the institution’s legal team, who considered whether it would affect the school negatively. In the end, Outram says the team agreed that the exposure would be positive, and could even translate into potential customers for the Copenhagen Wheel. "I think it’s a good fit in terms of a young, open-to-innovation audience," says Outram. "There’s an an element of consciousness there about what you buy."

The team did not stipulate that the wheel cannot appear in the same scenes as drug use, which may exploit the somewhat obvious overlap between bike lovers and casual consumers of marijuana, but also shows they’re a brand with a lighthearted attitude--after all, this is a product designed for enjoying everyday life. All in all, says Outram, the team has been bemused by the entire experience, even joking about renaming it the "Copenhagen Weed." "In general, I’m just excited to be part of the products featured on Weeds, which includes some pretty interesting albeit sometimes racy things: I-TAL Hemp Wicks, Raw Rolling Papers, 420 Jars, even Vajazzle--don’t Google that last one if you are around people."

Now that the word is out and people know the wheel is real, the other big question is: When will it be available? Outram assures us that the first wheels will be available in 2012 for around $600. No word on whether or not they’ll be making a special "green" edition to honor their unorthodox promotional partner.

[Top photo by Jordin Althaus/Showtime]

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