January 28, 2009 News & Features » Cover Story


The Great American Syke-Out 

Seen the new energy drink commercials on TV? They're not advertising what you think.

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Kids casually pick their noses behind school, an Australian shepherd takes a drag out in the yard, a girl licks every foul surface in a Richmond alley — these are the old ways, the old messages.

In the never-ending fight to save us from ourselves, public-service campaigns have evolved. The threats to our well-being pile up, and so does the barrage of warnings and alerts — a catalog of commercials telling us how many ways we can ruin our bodies, our lives, our world.

Hidden in the entrails of these ads you can divine a generation's fears and hang-ups. The lingering guilt of the unfulfilled revolutionary ideals of the 1960s haunted the next decade in the form of an Indian crying over litter. The stern paternalistic concern of the Reagan-era '80s bubbled up in the relationship between a son and father, who confronts the boy about his drug use and hears the terrible truth: “I learned it by watching you!”

Like all ads back then, messages were sent in the language of slogans and jingles. They were carried across the confined space of a few television networks, some radio stations, newspapers and a selection of magazines that would barely fill a modern dentist's office.

But now we must ask ourselves what an energy drink can teach us about ourselves, the future of advertising — and about cigarettes.

Cue the TV commercial for Syke: A guy sticks a slim can in a microwave and hits go. The Red Bull clone sparks, pops and explodes, obscuring the image with smoke. At which point the viewer is asked to create an imagined video outcome to post on Syke's Web site. The radio ad: A collection of hyperbolic absurdities — promises of enhanced awesomeness and kicking bears through walls of tigers or something. Oh yes. The ads are spreading like the virus their creators envisioned. And if it seems to be aimed at a particular market, you've been raised in the right century.

But what won't be apparent until you really start digging is that its mission has nothing to do with front-loading caffeine. Here's the surprise ending: Syke is Virginia's new teen anti-smoking initiative, the next generation of PSAs for the next generation of Americans.

The Syke campaign is part heir and part overthrower of the previous anti-smoking initiative, ydouthink — producer of those absurdist commercials starring the nose-pickers and the back-alley licking girl. Since 2001, ydouthink has created a brand based on direct messages that don't take themselves too seriously. And they were remarkably successful.

Syke's brand is something else, an obscure multimedia maze that wanders among TV, radio, Internet and live concerts — all the while promoting an energy drink that, in fact, doesn't exist.

You get this if you were born in the past 20 years or so.

Throughout the '90s and double-aught years, industries and practices perceived to be harmful were vilified in a procession of PSAs. Kids growing up post-Reagan had their choice of things to fear and loathe, but they were better equipped than their parents to filter this new barrage of messages. The number of stimuli blossomed with cable TV channels and niche magazines, plus their new cousins: the Internet and video games, empires of the interactive experience and the hidden message.

Good intentions alone don't stay afloat in this kind of media undertow. An Indian's tears, once dire, are treated as kitsch — or at best with gentle condescension, like a kindly old uncle warning against the threat of fluoride in the water. Consumers don't want to be lectured; and if they are, they want to respond. Combine that with the statistic that an American is exposed to anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 ad messages a day.

Maybe it takes a fake energy drink to get somebody's attention.

In November 1998 the attorneys general of 46 states and four major tobacco companies agreed to the $206 billion Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. It allows states to offset costs of smoking-related illnesses, restricts the practices of those tobacco companies and provides for such things as anti-smoking education.

Like other states, Virginia will receive about $4 billion during a 25-year period. Half goes to economic development to make up for jobs lost in the shrinking tobacco industry,  40 percent goes to paying medical costs, and the remaining 10 percent, about $13 million a year, goes toward education and other anti-smoking measures — placing Virginia right around 32nd in the nation for tobacco-prevention spending. The Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation controls this 10 percent.

And the foundation walks a minefield. Tobacco isn't some distant, nebulous evil. It's ingrained in Virginia's economy and culture. The foundation has avoided direct attacks on Philip Morris, one of the four companies involved in the settlement. Instead, it focused on youth and the effects of smoking. Besides, TheTruth — or just “truth” — campaign, a national initiative started in 2000, had its sights set on Big Tobacco, with memorable commercials that featured images such as body bags on busy streets.

In 2001 the foundation enlisted Work Labs, a Richmond marketing firm, which developed ydouthink. Work's Cabell Harris, who headed the project, says the point was to treat kids as capable of making decisions. “The kids aspire to be older,” he says. “Preaching to them doesn't work.”

The initial strategy put kids in front of a camera and asked, “Why is smoking cool?” The symphony of uhs and ahs was enough to let them know they were onto something. And so began the rise of ydouthink as a brand: curious, constantly reworking the same query, eliminating potential reasons to smoke. The symbol of the campaign was a question mark, Harris says, the goal to disrupt the messages telegraphed by cigarette ads.

Seven years later, on Sept. 9, 2008, Gov. Tim Kaine announced at a news conference in front of Manchester Middle School that high-school smoking had fallen from 28.6 percent in 2001 to 15.5 percent — about 4.5 percent below the national average. Cigarette use among middle-schoolers fell to 4.6 percent. The foundation estimates that its campaign from 2001 to 2007 prevented 73,000 kids from becoming smokers, saving 23,000 lives and $1.25 billion in health costs.

Deep in the heart of flavor country, the little public-health organization had turned back the advance of the Marlboro Men. But that very day, in the minutes of the foundation's board of trustees meeting, tucked way down on page 5, lay the next battle plan:

“‘Syke’ (pronounced psych), the VTSF's newest youth-led campaign, officially launched during the summer. Syke is an energy drink that will serve as a metaphor for cigarettes, with the main objective of igniting a passionate discontent with tobacco's presence and influence amongst socially successful teens in Virginia.”

With its victory still buzzing in Kaine's microphone, the foundation changed direction completely.

At the governor's press conference was Jeff Jordan, who'd traveled from San Diego. Jordan is the 24-year-old president of the Rescue Change Social Group, which develops programs to get young people involved in healthier lifestyles. The for-profit company uses social interactions aimed at specific groups to communicate messages of better living.

“We've really just focused on the behavioral theories that underlie risk behaviors,” Jordan says. “Teens know what's wrong with smoking. … so it's not about education anymore.”

Rescue developed the Syke campaign, along with campaigns along the West Coast, Louisiana, New York, Maine and Nevada, with programs covering smoking, drinking and AIDS. The crux of its philosophy is something called Social Branding, he says: “People perform behaviors more because of their identities than their knowledge.”
The people Jordan tries to reach can't be appealed to, so Rescue and the foundation are creating a brand that young people want to adopt, within which is a message. Say your favorite jeans told you one day to cut down on your sodium intake; you might pay attention — not because your pants are talking to you, but because you believe in the brand.

As for Syke, the goal is to become an analogy for tobacco and cigarettes, says Danny Saggese, director of marketing for the foundation. In the first of three phases, started in December, Syke the energy drink is introduced to the public via those extreme ads. The audience is invited to participate in the Syke experience by creating videos and photos and posting them to the Syke Web site: www.sykeenergy.com. There may be a few Syke cans floating around as props, but the drink doesn't exist. It's supposed to kind of live in our hearts.

The second phase involves the introduction, in the coming weeks, of a new kind of Syke. In the parlance of the culture, Saggese says it “will have nine new ingredients that are going to make it even more super awesome than it is now.” These ingredients will be revealed to correspond to the most dangerous chemicals in cigarettes, which leads to the third phase …

The public shaming and downfall of the energy drink, which involves the fake chief executive of the fake company disgraced and the fake product pulled from fake shelves. Syke symbolizes a product as dangerous as cigarettes, Saggese says, and the campaign's narrative will “enlist some of that outrage that would exist should something like this be introduced today.”

Robyn Deyo, president of Richmond's Barber Martin Agency, the advertising firm that took over the foundation's marketing four-and-a-half years ago from Work, estimates the rise and fall of the energy drink taking four to six weeks. Then it becomes something else, attaining what she calls “a lifestyle beyond the product.”

It's not all so rigorously planned though. “We have to keep it all organic,” Jordan says, “because a lot of things can happen.” In the real world, Syke sponsors concerts in places such as Northern Virginia and Tidewater areas, where Rescue has operatives who know the scene. Syke is there along with its anti-smoking message. The plan is to host two events a month; Saggese says some shows have already seen tremendous responses. The next show is Jan. 31 in Sterling.

But what happens when you get the kids to rally behind a drink-that-is-no-such-thing and then take it away? In fact, encourage the audience to turn on the thing you're not selling?

After the energy drink is disgraced, the live shows will continue. The hope is that the brand will have undergone a transformation — the magic act of the campaign. It hinges on whether Rescue and the foundation can create a product that's a joke, allow the audience in, reward people for figuring it out, and reveal that the actual brand is the idea, the community of like-minded kids who want the music and the lifestyle, but with the subtle addition of an anti-smoking mentality. Ta-da.

Syke the drink will die, Jordan says, but its name will live on, in “more rock shows and the places where these kids learn their social behaviors.”

The budget for the campaign is about $900,000 of the foundation's $4.7 million marketing budget. Officials contrast that with the $438.5 million spent by the tobacco industry on marketing in Virginia in 2005.

But Syke does share something with Big Tobacco: market segmentation. The strategy is to focus on specific groups rather than all young people. Tobacco companies began experimenting with that idea back in 1880 by using pictures of leggy girls to sell the product to young men. “One of the fundamental principles of marketing is that you segment your audience,” Jordan says.

How does it get broken up? Prepare yourself.

What amounts to the Warren Commission Report on teen smoking is a 35-page document called “Functional Analysis of Virginia Teen Smoking for Cultural Interventions.” Between February and May 2008, researchers invaded five middle schools, two high schools and a library in Virginia. They interviewed 137 kids in focus groups and 283 via surveys, all to determine what subcultures thrive in the commonwealth's petri dish.

Using photos of kids from various scenes, the researchers searched for groups in which students felt they belonged. From that data, Rescue named seven subcultures in Virginia: Emo/Goth and Rocker/Skater (grouped as Alternative), Preppy, Flashy Hip Hop, Hard Hip Hop, Southern and Mainstream Floater.

Reading the report creates a weird sweaty-palms kind of reaction, invoking — at least from this writer — a primordial anxiety — not so much because of the conclusions as for it proving a universal teen paranoia: that somewhere out there, cool adults have pictures of you and are showing them to other kids and asking them to opine about exactly what kind of person you are. A playground of judgment in the name of science.

The report says the highest rates of smoking are in the subcultures whose identities are tied up in a look and an attitude. The largest group, the Mainstream Floater, had the lowest smoking rates but also the least-defined characteristics as a group. Ydouthink has reached the youth at the center, Saggese says, but it's “not as good for reaching the fringe of the subcultures.”

Rescue wants these Others.

“These kids are a lot more complex than other kids,” Jordan says. “They strive for nonmainstream music, they have their own local heroes. ... They're a lot more savvy about environmental issues.” Smoking is not done for utility, he says, but for identity. If there's a brand of cigarette for every taste, there must be a brand of anti-smoking campaign for every taste.

Prevention campaigns must follow the same strategy as social trends, the report says: “The campaign must be cool and cutting edge, trying endlessly to reach those few innovators. ... Socially concerned teens will not stop smoking because they learn something new about tobacco or the tobacco industry. They will stop because someone cooler than they are celebrates being smokefree.”

The subculture kids see smoking as integral to their subculture's identity (“They wear their cigarettes,” the report says) and here's where Rescue proposes going all black-ops on the thing:

“To change this behavior, we must go deep into their subculture. ... Now, we must convince teens within other subcultures not to smoke, but acknowledge that this goal necessitates a different strategy from ydouthink. They need to feel that being smokefree is cool, not just think it. [Syke] must … become the equivalent to the coolest teen in the subculture.”

This is the true heart of the brand, and where the success on which the campaign's future rests. To be accepted as One of Them and become a brand that's a role model. Saggese wants Syke to “make it OK for the influential youth within that subculture to make fun of tobacco.”

Aside from being revealing about smoking habits in the culture of young Virginians, the report offers those unintentional, sweaty palmed evocations of the teenage years, some real “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret” moments.

It gets as close to name-calling as something stamped “Research Report” probably can, calling the Mainstream Floaters “white noise, the backdrop that makes the other youth subcultures in Virginia pronounced and socially significant.”

The average M.F. may have many and diverse friends, the report says, but he or she nevertheless “are not trendsetters and usually not considered cool.” But M.F.s are “more socially conscious and interested in causing change. Also, they are best equipped to speak intelligently to adults to motivate them to change.”

So they are a perfect group to run something like Y St., the youth-led anti-smoking advocacy group. They get to plan the cool stuff, they just aren't invited to the dance.

The problem is that like Syke, the Mainstream Floater doesn't exist. The report would have you believe that most young Virginians belong to a large group whose individuals have no discernible qualities, who will just wear whatever, believe any old thing, whose identities are shaped by whatever is at hand. They're the children of the corn, except even those kids chose murder. But really who's ever seen these Floaters? With no particular preferences, do they even make it to adulthood?

No, it's just a convenient category, a dumping ground of tastes that don't fit elsewhere. They become a weird zombie demographic — Night of the Living Indifferent.

“We're putting labels on these subcultures, but youth don't,” Saggese concedes. “We're doing it so we can talk about it.”

They built their strategy around those labels and the tastes of a composite subculture. Then they work to create an elaborate, indirect appeal through the fake energy drink.

The danger is that the strategy deceives its audience, says Kelly O'Keefe, branding expert at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter.

“The goal is terrific, but you don't win over the interest and attention of your most cynical audience, who distrusts large institutions, by lying to them, by faking them out,” O'Keefe says. “This is a really important subject that ought to be treated with a little more honesty.”

For an organization trying to cut through years of tobacco industry untruths, he says, “the last thing they want to do is present something that is untrue or dishonest.”

Rescue seems to recognize that this is a risky situation in its report, writing that the strength of the campaign is in its ability to bring youth together in the physical world, to “conduct events, develop materials, and engage in activities that would be perceived as Alternative. Then it would reveal its underlying message.

“This would be very powerful, since so many Alternative teens would, by this time, identify with and trust Syke. However, if Syke also said it were part of ydouthink, there is the risk that these teens will feel Syke was never genuine to begin with, and that it was just a Mainstream Floater posing as an Alternative.”
(Can you just imagine? I know.)

O'Keefe says the value of the straightforward message hasn't been eroded away, just forgotten in the increasing rush of new media. Being deceptive is what created the cynicism, he says, but “being truthful and confident is how advertising can overcome cynicism.”

Barber Martin Agency president Robyn Deyo sees ydouthink settling into a role as the elder statesmen of brands, delivering that message to a wider swath of kids, some who haven't yet made those identity decisions that the report predicts. As they grow up, there'll be a more narrowly-focused brand waiting for them, whatever they finally turn out to be, to carry on that message in every medium, whichever flavor they choose.

Along with Y St. (the social-action arm of ydouthink), Veeay (a social networking site aimed at the Prep subculture) and 2up2down (a hip-hop-focused brand that puts on house shows, focusing on Richmond and Hampton Roads), the report argues that this market segregation can reach more than 70 percent of Virginia's teen smokers. “You've got to reach them at every place they are,” Deyo says. “They're fast moving.” It kind of puts the Big Brother in Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

If it all works, the foundation may have reached the next evolutionary state of the public-service announcement. O'Keefe says the brands have the right idea in getting inside the subcultures, as long as they keep things honest once they're in.

“You need to immerse yourself in that world to be able to get it,” he says. “To the extent that they're touching people with concerts and not ads, I love that.”
The foundation and Rescue want these kids to feel, and identify. The future is the live show, the online community, the viral message. And now, perhaps, the fake energy drink.

Maybe that's where the grownups will succeed, and where Syke will do good — reminding kids, surrounded by thousands of voices a day, that there's wisdom in crowds, that decisions can be made as a community. Long after the sacrificial lamb in that little aluminum can has been torn apart, the entrails still carry a message that the crying Indian never did: You are not alone. S




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