Real to Reel

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

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.

At Oberlin College, where he earned a degree in cinema studies, Kipp discovered documentary and digital filmmaking, which culminated in the making of Snooze Button, a trippy, 17-minute short for which Kipp functioned as the writer, director, editor, stuntman, and star. Amazingly, the picture ties together a library booty call, a bloodthirsty gorilla, a commentary on postmodernism in film, and a '70s crime-fighting kung fu flick. Perhaps more amazingly, it also got Kipp his first job: A college friend with a role in Snooze Button showed the movie to his girlfriend, who in turn showed it to her dad, who happens to be Jeff Goodby, the man at the helm of the firm behind the Budweiser Lizards and the ubiquitous question "Got Milk?" Goodby hired Kipp two months later.

Bonnie Wan and Chip Rees of Witness the Way We 
James Sanders
Bonnie Wan and Chip Rees of Witness the Way We Live.

For Goodby, the novice filmmaker seemed perfect for a new position created by his firm's account planners, who connect corporations and consumers and work as project managers for ad campaigns. Instead of outsourcing consumer research projects to sluggish, expensive third-party companies (an in-depth study at such an organization can take months and cost in the six figures), Goodby, Silverstein would have Kipp on hand at its Chinatown office, ready to roll tape on the spot. Kipp moved to San Francisco last fall and has since been couch surfing (including in the cabin of a leaky yacht docked in Sausalito where some of his college friends live) while he waits for renovations to his future apartment in the Mission District to be completed.

On an uncharacteristically sunny winter day Kipp offers me a pleasant tour of the Goodby, Silverstein offices at 720 California St. -- through a reception area so cluttered with awards that the receptionist likens it to a trophy shop, through the audio mixing rooms in the basement, past the foosball table on the third floor and the pool table on the fifth, beyond vending machines that dispense ice-cold Budweisers for a quarter. "They just took down the badminton court," Kipp apologizes, gesturing to the space where the net used to hang. At first, it seems the perfect office environment for a budding filmmaker.

Kipp's hunky good looks -- clear blue eyes, lean frame, and dark blond mop of hair -- and often ebullient manner (his joyful outbursts can be inspired by anything from making movies to going bowling) make him perfectly approachable while he peers into a camera's viewfinder. But here, they make him seem strangely confined by his desk -- in an undecorated cube near the open space referred to as "Town Square," in which companywide meetings are held. He explains that this location is preferable to the spot earmarked for him his first week on the job, an isolated basement room used as a graveyard for the company's old films.

The scene with Kipp and the mall girls is being played out around the country. Strange men from New York City flew to Omaha, Neb., for example, to film Joanna Holland's daughter jumping on her bed. Unlike most mothers, Holland, a professor in the University of Nebraska-Omaha's Department of Marketing and Management, was more fascinated than alarmed. The New Yorkers (who work for a firm whose name Holland can't remember) had phoned her office a few days earlier. They were conducting a research project for a chain of pizza stores and wondered if any of Holland's college students (ideally males between the ages of 18 and 25) might be interested in getting $100 to sit around, eat pizza, and shoot the shit while being filmed. The offer wasn't a hard sell, and Holland proved to be such a crack recruiter that the men called on her again the next day, hoping she could put them in touch with a different target demographic -- Midwestern mothers and their elementary-school daughters. One thing led to another, and soon a stranger arrived to videotape the shoes in her daughter's closet.

"These kinds of studies are quite different than what we had before," Holland says via phone from her Omaha office when we speak a month or so after the in-home shoot. A teacher of anthropology, sociology, and marketing, Holland has observed the advent of documentary methods in advertising research as an academic, but the visit to her house offered a more pragmatic understanding. "They allow a real window into real lives."

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