Real to Reel

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

Confidentiality prevents Mosier from delivering any recent PortiCo films for viewing, but a few days after our interview a VHS cassette arrives of a 2001 project called Coming of Age in the Age of Possibility.

"Over the next 30 minutes," promises a smooth male voice-over, "you will learn about the culture that 21- to 25-year-olds are creating." The first tip: "Possibly the most primary value for these 21- to 25-year-olds is the quality of being real," says the unseen man. The film cuts to "Gretchen, 21," standing in front of a brick wall. "I like working with people that just are --," she says, pausing to choose the perfect word, "real."

The rest of the segment is filled with more "real" people, like "Nicole, 21," who loves "liquid dancing" at raves; "Toni, 22," who yearns to deny her privilege by inoculating babies in Kenya; and "Nus, 24," who provides a post-feminist reading of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and proudly displays her ethnic heritage through a set of colorful wall hangings.

Kipp at his office.
James Sanders
Kipp at his office.
Claudine Murphy, an account planner at Goodby, 
James Sanders
Claudine Murphy, an account planner at Goodby, Silverstein.

Viewed today, Age of Possibility seems as gently out-of-date as the VHS tape on which it was recorded. With their Napster, raves, and wet-looking hair, these 21- to 25-year-olds appear to come from a world disconnected from the world of Kipp, Lisa, and Amanda. It's not only what Gretchen and friends say that feels stale, but also how they say it: It sounds scripted.

Since Possibility was made, commercial ethnography's rise as a research tool has paralleled a rise in how comfortable we all are with being in front of and behind a camera, changing the landscape of the field. Other kinds of film projects have, as industry insiders say, "taken down the two-way mirror." For example, Converse sponsored a "short films" contest -- really just a commercial-making contest -- that garnered thousands of 24-second submissions, some of which have appeared on TV. Advertising firms routinely hand out digital video cameras to consumers so they can make research films about themselves. The easy dynamic between young filmmakers like Kipp and girls like Lisa and Amanda -- who scarcely remember the advent of reality television, MTV's The Real World-- is increasingly the norm rather than the exception. These young women never talk about saving African babies or creating an "age of possibility." They never sex up, dramatize, or exaggerate their ideas in an effort to be more real. They simply seem like real people.

After the tour of the Goodby, Silverstein offices, Kipp introduces me to Claudine Murphy, the account planner primarily responsible for dreaming up his job. Murphy's office overlooks a maze of Chinatown alleys, and she speaks about Kipp's position with an equally disorienting glossary of ad industry jargon -- terms like "artifact discussion" (speaking about an object) and "deep diving" (in-depth research). At the mention of each term, Murphy uses her index fingers to gesture invisible quotation marks in the air in front of her.

"This is not about coverage," Murphy says. "It's about discovery and finding stories. I think, as advertisers, we like to think that we respect the kind of people we are making advertisements for, because we are essentially interrupting people's lives with what we have to say. There is a lot of presumption there. This kind of research gives me a great deal of respect for the customers and a deeper appreciation of the lives ... that we interrupt with these messages. It makes me feel better about what I do. It makes me feel less like I'm trying to get into people's minds and manipulate them."

Of course, the ultimate result of Kipp's research still informs an advertisement, and advertisements are, after all, made to encourage people to buy things. But Murphy has a compassionate take on the work she's been doing for a while -- before Goodby, Silverstein, she was executive vice president of Look-Look, a San Diego-based company that used commercial ethnography techniques to track the teen market -- and she's watched the field evolve.

"We didn't call it [commercial ethnography] at the time," Murphy says. "I guess it would be considered that now. I was already talking to kids on the streets of Tokyo about what they thought was cool about their sneakers -- but I never thought of it in those terms." Today, Kipp's video method is in vogue, and she has rapturous praise for the way his work fits into the firm's plans for attracting future clients and inspiring ads for current ones. "If Messieurs Goodby and Silverstein had their way," she says, "we would never set foot into another focus group facility again."

And as the PortiCo Possibility film demonstrates, the research behind ads has gotten more intimate, sophisticated, and seemingly honest -- resulting in more intimate, sophisticated, and seemingly truthful ads. "You aren't going to find out a true thing unless you go out there and get messy," Murphy says. "People know when you are not being true to them in advertising. They know when you are lying. They know something that's bullshit from something that's real."

On a sunny Saturday in February, Kipp is in Oakland, filming a bit about shoes. This is not an in-depth "deep dive"; he's just standing on the sidewalk, chatting up ladies on the subject of pumps. He mingles casually with strangers as they walk by, his affable charm on display and his PD150 at the ready. For the passers-by it's a pleasant, if curious, bit of conversation with a stranger. Though some women shoot Kipp disapproving looks as they walk past, most don't seem to mind at all.

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