Real to Reel

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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."

Holland explains how different this method is from others used throughout the last half-century of advertising: the slogan in the '50s, the survey in the '70s, and the focus group in the '80s. By the early '90s, advertisers were looking for increasingly intimate insights into their increasingly sophisticated audiences.

"At first, focus groups were able to provide so much additional information above and beyond any sort of paper-and-pencil marketing research tool that they appeared to be the answer," Holland says. "And that worked for a very long time." But during the media-saturated '80s and '90s, consumers became progressively more savvy and skeptical, a change she considers a side effect of an overresearched society.

"There was a time when so few people were contacted personally that there was the feeling of obligation and almost flattery when you were asked to participate," Holland says. "But when you're attacked by the clipboard ladies every single time you go to the mall, the mystique is lost."

In the early '90s a handful of research firms developed a new tactic. Dubbed "commercial ethnography," the technique quickly became a hot topic in the advertising industry (which seems prone to hot topics) for using components of sociology and anthropology in conducting market research. By its academic definition, ethnography is the study of behavior in its natural environment, used mostly for academic anthropology; when that observation is used by a company to understand the way its products affect people in the world -- usually by videotaping or audiotaping consumers -- it's called commercial ethnography. The idea is to get to know the consumer better than he knows himself.

"It offers something that you can't study statistically, most of the time about the demographic that changes its mind the quickest: youth," Holland says. "There was an awakening to the fact that you couldn't get an accurate view of what teenagers are thinking by having them fill out a survey or participate in a focus group."

Holland concedes that the media- and tech-savvy youth market -- constantly snapping pictures with camera phones, sharing personal information online, and desensitized to the ubiquity of reality television -- is probably more comfortable in front of a camera than any other generation. "It's something that is so much more accepted now," Holland says. "You just share your life with others."

Kipp is hardly the only one with whom people are sharing their lives. Aside from him and the nameless New Yorkers, people are also doing so with Chip Rees and Bonnie Wan. The San Francisco couple, both veterans of large ad agencies, launched Witness the Way We Live, their own commercial ethnography firm based in the city, with a mission to "use lifestyle research and documentary as a way to stimulate ideas through vivid cultural portraits," as their promotional material explains. When we meet in a Mission District coffee shop near the Witness office, Rees agrees that today's kids are more open to intimate video research.

"There is very much a comfort level because your friends are always recording you," says Rees. "You go to Union Square in Manhattan and there are all these skateboarders out there filming each other and recording each other. And there is the revolution of digital cameras. People are used to seeing themselves and being recorded."

"Kids are experts with media," Wan says. "Not only because they are growing up in a media culture, but also because they are the ones who are creating media themselves. It's very much a part of their world. We are in a reality video culture. That is the pervasive culture."

That culture allows people like Rees, Wan, and Kipp extensive access to the lives of the people they study. For many teenagers, participating in a commercial ethnography study is like starring in an episode of a reality television show.

"The whole reason this kind of research works is rooted in the fact that it makes people feel unique and that they have something interesting to tell," says Joanna Holland. For example, when asked why her daughter provided such candid answers to the pizza men, she replies, "Because they asked. [The girls] felt like movie stars."

For Rees (and, as his films reveal, Kipp), the way such questions are asked is just as important as what's asked. "When you approach a person and show genuine interest in their ideas and where they come from, and you're not treating them as a specimen, they open up."

That kind of genuine interest first appeared in the work of Caroline Gibbons Barry, who founded PortiCo Research, an early commercial ethnography firm that started in New York City in 1993 and today has satellite offices all over the United States and Europe. According to PortiCo's second in command, Scott Mosier (who has the Orwellian-sounding title director of consumer insights), Barry was "frustrated with asking people about how they use paper towels but not being able to see how they use paper towels in real life."

Mosier goes on, "She knew that the only way this was going to work was if she could communicate what she was seeing and learning in [consumers'] homes to the clients." Barry hired documentary filmmakers in New York City to film in-home visits, hoping to show how powerful the documentary technique was as a tool for going beyond traditional focus group methods into a better understanding of the interior lives of consumers. "Sure enough," Mosier says with a touch of pride, "the things that she was hoping would come true came true. They all came true." Today PortiCo is one of the leading research firms that conduct commercial ethnography in the world.

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.

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.

After more than a hundred hours of editing, Kipp will transform these casual conversations into a short movie about footwear for Goodby, Silverstein. And then, a few months after that, one of these ladies will turn on the tube or step into a mall in Oakland -- or Dallas, or Madrid, or London -- and there, among the images displaying the latest trends in jeans and sneakers and celebrity fragrances, will be an advertisement for shoes that appeals to her for reasons she may not fully grasp. It will be, quite literally, based on her life.

Though Kipp's job presents persistent questions about what is and is not genuine, the responsibility the filmmaker feels to this anonymous woman is something that weighs on his conscience. "When you are filming friends ... they're more likely to treat you as a friend and speak honestly about how they see things," he says. If those things -- like shoes or celebrities -- seem superficial at first, you would never know it by listening to the people in Kipp's films.

For example, one of the girls in the Britney film says, "I want to smell like [her] so I can feel like a movie star." But she already smells like her (she buys the perfume), and, in a way, she already is a star. The fact that she misses this connection makes her seem more human.

When Chip Rees talks about his and Kipp's job, he characterizes it simply: "It is about the craft of understanding human behavior."

Or, to put it another way, it's about the craft of seeming real -- without the quotation marks.

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