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Real to Reel 

Jesse Kipp's job in the emerging field of commercial ethnography could make you the star of your very own advertisement

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
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At first glance, there's nothing unusual about the two 17-year-old girls -- let's call them Lisa and Amanda -- on a brisk, chatty walk through the Galleria shopping complex in the flatlands of the Dallas suburbs. They're talking about what they talk about every day -- school, clothes, and pop stars -- standard topics among the packs of teeny-boppers who scavenge the Gap and Aéropostale. But this evening, on a clear December night, two special guests have joined the duo, one with a clipboard and the other with a video camera. The cameraman, Jesse Kipp, a 24-year-old based in San Francisco, walks alongside the girls, capturing every nuanced expression on the monitor of his black Sony PD150 digital video camera, recording every "uh" and "like" and giggle. Things are going perfectly.

Then someone gets a tap on the shoulder. A security guard has spotted the group, which has settled on some benches under twinkling Christmas lights, and he's starting to ask questions. He wants to know what the filming is all about. There's a problem: Videotaping, he warns, is strictly against the Galleria's regulations. The four of them are going to have to leave.

After some discussion, the small entourage ends up on the sidewalk between a parking lot in which holiday shoppers are grappling for spaces and the garishly decorated entrance to the shopping center. Lisa and Amanda are still talking about celebrities and giggling. Kipp is still rolling.

After the girls are done at the mall, Kipp follows them home for a tour of one of their bedrooms and a chat with some more of their friends -- seven of them, actually. For the girls, the idea of getting paid to chatter is a little unusual, but the chatter itself isn't that far out of the ordinary. And that's exactly what Kipp is looking for. In the next month, he'll tow the PD150 to London, Madrid, and New York City to capture just this kind of footage, which he'll then use to create tiny, intimate documentaries that open a window into the lives of consumers. Whether Lisa and Amanda are aware of it, when they walk through the doors of the Galleria six months from now, bits and pieces of today's conversation will have been incorporated into the advertisements that plaster the place.

That transformation is due in large part to Kipp. Since October 2004 he has been working at a top San Francisco advertising firm, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, where he operates simultaneously as an anthropologist, a market research assistant, and a documentarian. Kipp's pup talent as a filmmaker (he graduated in spring 2004 from Oberlin College) is put to use as an inventive market research tool for the firm; his business card reads "Planner's Videographer." Goodby, Silverstein created the job to solve its dissatisfaction with traditional market research techniques like focus groups and field questionnaires -- methods that have proved less and less effective and inspiring over the last decade, according to ad industry watchers and the agencies themselves -- and to provide a more realistic perspective on its audiences. Kipp is the company's answer to a burgeoning industrywide research movement called "commercial ethnography."

The documentaries themselves are highly stylized romps into the inner lives of target audience members -- everyone from football fans bitching about a cable outage during the big game to the unguarded talk of Lisa and Amanda, which will be used to inform a new advertising campaign for Britney Spears' perfume, Curious. In the end, the agency uses the films both to woo new clients and to better understand and craft ad messages.

As advertising industry leaders try an assortment of new methods and seek out so-called "cool chasers" to help them close the gap between ad concepts and consumers, Kipp's early successes -- and the corresponding rise of his field -- are changing the way Goodby, Silverstein does business. Ultimately, Kipp's technique could make looking at an ad just like looking into a mirror.


Jesse Kipp made his first film with a bunch of buddies when he was in middle school, though he claims that because it wasn't edited, it wasn't much to see. He made his last film with a bunch of girls who want to look, dress, and -- most important -- smell like Britney Spears, though he claims that it isn't much to see either. Client confidentially prevents him from showing the entire finished product to an outside reporter, but a brief screening reveals a captivating peek at the pop singer's superfans.

Essentially a research tool for Goodby, Silverstein client Elizabeth Arden, the eight-minute movie (which took more than 200 hours to film and edit) includes Kipp's shots of young women in Dallas, New York, London, and Madrid talking about their lives, the lives of celebrities, and how those two things intersect on the topic of fragrance. A swift series of shots creates a montage of girls who speak of the singer in the accent of Dallas and Brooklyn and London, in bedrooms and malls, in groups and alone. Most of the girls are young and attractive (one could be the icon's twin), though some have yet to grow out of their pimples and braces.

Just before Christmas, Kipp took a few days off from the whirlwind four-city tour to visit his parents (both academic anthropologists) in Sewanee, Tenn., where his mother also serves as the dean of the University of the South. It was there that he realized he felt badly for Spears, "because the girls expected so much from her."

Though this was Kipp's first international business trip, he's a seasoned traveler. He spent two years in Miami and San Jose with AmeriCorps (a national volunteer service program), four months studying abroad in Vietnam, and one summer riding his bicycle from Missoula, Mont., to his childhood home in Gambier, Ohio (or almost to Gambier; he called his sister to pick him up when he was a few hours away). In fact, in many ways he's not that far removed from the demographic he films: He listens to classic Jamaican ska and dub (the Trojan box sets are his favorite), plays forward on soccer teams in three different area leagues, and enjoys snowboarding and an occasional 40-ounce bottle of beer.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri

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