Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Twenty-nine-year-old freelance journalist Mark Jacobs went to a house party for 30 people a few nights ago in Hollywood. It was sponsored by Miller Genuine Draft. “There was a modest plate of Halloween cookies on the stove and barely more people then lawn chairs,” says the brunette, bespectacled New Yorker, in town to cover fashion week for the daily Seventh on 6th magazine. “It was totally small and quiet. And, there were these two beautiful blond MGD girls walking around with digital cameras, shooting pictures of these hip 20-somethings drinking beer. It was total fiction, which is the way I feel about most things that happen in L.A.”
Jacobs, who wears a fanny pack slung diagonally across his chest, did a brief stint at a cut-rate trend-forecasting firm in New York before getting into the journalism racket and later working at Paper. “It’s really advanced, the way they are trying to reach these audiences. I mean, if they are finding you in small houses on dark streets in residential neighborhoods. It’s pretty clear there has been a shift. It was like having your 8-year-old’s birthday party sponsored by Carvel. It’s kind of a dream come true and kind of a nightmare at the same time.”
The MGD beer bash is just one extreme example of the current trend in promotional parties and micro-marketing, which seems to be taking branding to a satirical or even Orwellian level. With the fevered rise of consumer culture and the ubiquitous “event planner” whose job it is to turn as many people as possible on to whatever product or person they are working for, it’s become the norm for people to receive an onslaught of invitations to increasingly elaborate launch parties for new video games, perfumes, jean companies or boutique openings. Such blantant calls for financial gain would have been considered déclassé a few years ago, but today people from all strata of society find themselves out, sometimes several nights a week, “celebrating” products — often products that they have little connection to except for the fact that they are on someone’s guest list.
People seem to have grown slap-happy for promotional parties: Witness the invitations that went out in New York a few weeks ago, not for celebutant Charlotte Ronson’s T-shirt line, but instead the launch of her T-shirt line’s new ad campaign. There are, of course, the rogue hipsters who still gather around neighborhood bars and friends’ dinner tables. Yet the MGD party seems to be the most cunning of combinations: a simple backyard party, no celebrities, no guest lists or DJs, just free beer and a willingness to be a part of the company’s advertising efforts.
“It was genius,” says Mathew Swenson enthusiastically via cell phone, of the MGD party which he helped arrange. Swenson, the 23-year-old creative director of mute; abuse media, a company which specializes in branding strategies and creative services for bands, fashion designers and clothing lines such as Monah Li and Freshjive, was the one who invited Jacobs to the party. “It’s funny,” says Swenson. “My friends are all, like, Silver Lake Eastside kids hanging out in the back yard, and I am escorting these two typical blond Wilhelmina beer commercial girls around all night. It’s such an ironic twist.”
It was Swenson’s co-host, 35-year-old Fountain Yount, who scored the MGD hook-up. Yount, product manager at Bunker printing in Hollywood, met the MGD people while printing promotional materials for them at his job. He must have made a good impression, because a MGD rep offered up coupons for 16 cases of free booze in exchange for allowing the girls to come and shoot. Swenson isn’t quite clear on what the pictures will be used for, but he suspects the liquor company’s Web site.
“I got to give them a call about that,” he says, thinking out loud.
Swenson, who studied fashion product development at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown L.A., says that he thinks the marketing idea was “brilliant” on MGD’s part, and he and his friends had so much fun they are already thinking about doing it again. “During the Industrial Revolution you just entered a new product on the market and it would sell based on need,” he says. “But now there are multiple liquor companies, multiple magazines, multiple products, so these companies need to brand themselves on a smaller, more personal level. There is a really good book I read recently called Emotional Branding: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People. It’s all about taking your product and making people connect to it on an emotional level. People need to feel some sort of camaraderie with the line, not that they are just consuming it.”
That said, Swenson, who uses Skyy Vodka to sponsor his weekly Tuesday-night party Meet at Cinespace on Hollywood Boulevard, doesn’t think he would go out of his way to drink Miller anytime soon.
Did you ever drink Miller Genuine Draft before the party?
Do you think you will now?
“No,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t drink beer. But, I will remember them as a company. You know, just based on the story.”