In terms of physical distance, the Ventura chapter of the Hells Angels is a mere half-hour cruise-less on a motorcycle-down the coast from UCSB. The image of the outlaw biker, though-that seedy cowboy on two wheels-seems worlds away from the sunny enclave of our nearby campus, where sandal-clad coeds spend more time preening and tanning than disturbing the peace.
It’s not surprising, then, that eyebrows rose a few months ago when the Film and Media Studies Department at UCSB announced an upcoming class sponsored by Harley-Davidson, a name synonymous with outlaw ideals. Now in its eighth week, the class-a workshop aimed at understanding and developing viral advertising-seems to have made a fruitful collaboration of the odd coupling, and has served as a valuable lesson to students about the inevitable intersection of creativity and commercialism.
Late last quarter, the Film and Media Studies Department issued an open call for Harley-Davidson commercial proposals that aim to translate the familiar brand identity to a younger audience, and to women, an oft ignored demographic in the boys’ club of motorcycle culture. From the 65 applications received, 10 students were chosen to participate in the spring workshop, which explores sponsored video production amid the proliferation of new media technologies.
Each student was given a $1,200 production stipend, some general guidelines-nothing pornographic; characters must be law-abiding-and the incentive of a $5,000 grand prize for the winner. During the last few weeks, the students have fleshed out and developed their ideas under the guidance of Professor L. Mendel. Keeping in mind the general tone of viral videos-those brief, catchy clips that endlessly circulate the Internet-the students shot and edited their commercials, which are now displayed on the UCSB Web site. (See filmandmedia.ucsb.edu.) Everyone is invited to watch the videos and to vote for their favorite by Friday, June 8. The top three will advance to a final judging round, where Harley-Davidson will pick the winner.
Harley-Davidson’s stake in all this is obvious. The venture brings the company a fresh perspective from a largely untapped market and offers invaluable insight into the rapidly evolving nature of 21st-century consumerism. It’s increasingly common knowledge that the viral video phenomenon is challenging the model of top-down advertising in favor of more spontaneous, consumer-driven strategies.
In essence, television commercials don’t work as well as they used to. Said Hank Romero, a film major in the class, “Companies need to find new markets. With TiVo and DVRs, people are fast-forwarding right past commercials. Companies need to find that one ad, the one that gets people talking and gets them searching online.”
Less clear, perhaps, is the university’s role in accepting corporate sponsorship for one of its classes. The close association of public universities with corporate and government agencies has long been fodder for contention, whether it’s athletic endorsements or research money granted by pharmaceutical companies or the Department of Defense.
Still, students and faculty defend the benefits of this particular collaboration, citing the realities of the film and television industries, where many department graduates hope to work. “Unless you’re uncommonly lucky,” Romero said of the industry, “you have to work for hire. It’s like any other field-until you’ve reached a certain amount of success, you have to answer to someone else.”
But that doesn’t necessarily preclude creativity or artistry, Romero was quick to add, pointing to the 10 submissions as proof. In fact, the viral medium may bring artistry closer to the forefront of advertising. Among the submissions, you can see inspirations of surrealism, explorations of societal norms, even meta-narratives that comment on the ridiculousness of commercialism and filmmaking itself. The viral attitude seems to promote these untraditional techniques, in large part as a reaction against traditional commercialism.
This raises an obvious question, one with which the class has grappled all quarter: Can the independent spirit of these viral videos be preserved with corporate sponsorship? The answer is unclear.
“It’s an interesting animal,” Romero said of the new direction in advertising. The viral theme currently is being used by a number of companies, from Shell’s impossibly oblique 10-second spots, which use a total lack of meaning to bait the viewer online, to Coca-Cola turning coke.com into a site for consumer-generated media, thereby capitalizing on the “Diet Coke and Mentos” videos.
The effectiveness of these campaigns is, so far, unproven. The phenomenon is still so new that significant market research doesn’t yet exist. There’s no question, however, that the landscape of the corporate-consumer relationship has changed. The existence of this class at UCSB is proof positive of that change, and could well be an indication of things to come. In the meantime, students are happy to be creating and happy to participate in this experimental union of business and brainpower.
“It’s a great class,” Romero explained. “Cool, creative, and intense. It’s a taste of the real world.”
The 10 student submissions can be seen at filmandmedia.ucsb.edu. Check them out and vote by 4 p.m. on June 8. Winners will be announced online.