Scott is searching for meaning. Joey wants balance in his social and academic life. Dante hopes for peace among his peers.
Appearing in Lowe Lintas & Partners' new "Voices" TV campaign for Sprite, these are a few of the teens who share their dreams and failures in a freestyle rap they wrote and performed for gritty documentary-style ads promoting the lemon-lime soft drink.
In a 30-second commercial titled "See Through It," Crystal, an aspiring performer, raps: "You might as well give up/And start walkin' your talk/'Cause what you're bein' is artificial/And it ain't being bought/ You wanna reconsider/Who you're trying to be/You might fool others/But you ain't fooling me."
The lyrics discuss an arrogant guy who doesn't impress her, but the words could just as easily describe the hurdles Sprite faced with its previous advertising.
Since 1995, Sprite's popular "Obey Your Thirst" campaign, with comic parody spots starring athletes such as Grant Hill, distinguished the Coca-Cola Co. product as the drink that warned kids to trust their instincts, not advertising.
Yet, despite the campaign's long-standing success, the ads were growing stale and sales reflected the boredom consumers felt.
Last year, according to a Beverage Digest/Maxwell survey of the soft-drink industry, Sprite experienced a 2 percent drop in sales and a tiny decline in market share.
Though research showed strong awareness of the brand's advertising among its teen and twentysomething target market, the brand's use of parodies, a common creative choice in recent years, had lost much of its original punch.
"Teens were able to rhyme about the brand and recite Sprite ads off the top of their heads, but the research indicated we needed to evolve," says Pina Siarra, director for youth brands at Coca-Cola.
Keeping the tagline and the core message, the agency produced a no-frills campaign that puts young adults front and center.
"We want to reach out to as many teens as we can, and allow teens to talk to each other in a very real, grounded way," explains Siarra.
Sprite is just one of several advertisers that encourages potential customers to voice its advertising message. Truth, expressed with minimal industry filters, has become the name of the game for many marketers trying to snag a piece of the lucrative $155 billion teen market.
For a diverse group of clients that sell everything from kicking cigarettes to buying jeans, the medium is the message. Giving their key demos greater say in ads underscores the importance of conveying empowerment and self-expression in campaigns targeted to youth.
"The connection between the brand and the kids is made by association rather than an agency hired to hawk goods," explains C.J. Waldman, executive vice president and creative group head on the Sprite account at Lowe's.
"There has been a culture shift from anti-corporate to a culture that doesn't separate advertising from entertainment," says Ron Vos, president of Carrboro, N.C.-based youth firm Hi Frequency Marketing.
"We get kids involved in campaigns. It sparks their interest in the advertiser—and the lines between marketer and marketee are blurred," says Vos.
Like many of the trends fueling advertising these days, the style of low-tech executions and consumer-created concepts is inspired, in part, by the current popularity of "reality"-based programs, such as Survivor, the proliferation of low-cost digital technology and even the direct peer-to-peer communication teens have grown accustomed to on the Internet.
"There is a new visual language of digital video and Internet streaming video," says Alex Bogusky, creative director and partner of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami.
"If you were to expose 40-year-olds to the Internet video feed as a visual style, they would find it annoying," Bogusky says. "Kids are more comfortable with it."
For instance, the American Legacy Foundation work, which Crispin co-authors with Arnold, Boston, pierces through the cynicism of today's media-savvy kids by empowering them. Many spots armed teens with spy cams so they could film themselves confronting Big Tobacco with the "Truth," the cornerstone and tagline of the work's anti-smoking message.
Levi's also chose the empowerment route. For the current "Make them your own" campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day, San Francisco, kids were outfitted in Levi's clothing and asked to shed their inhibitions by getting on stage to sing forgotten '80s pop hits, like Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon," in a karaoke show for their peers.
Directed by TBWA North America creative director Chuck McBride, the resulting commercials, also shot on digital video, give viewers front-row seats to a fun party.
These spots, stripped of many of the slick trappings of mainstream efforts, "are a kind of acknowledgement that advertising is not a mystery to these kids anymore," says Gregg Hale, who collaborated with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, last year to produce a documentary-style campaign tagged "Don't hold back" for teen content site Bolt.com.
"Advertisers are saying we are going to deconstruct [the process] down to the point where you take the commercial and put it in the hands of the consumer and let them do what they want with it," adds Hale, a member of the Haxan Films production team, makers of The Blair Witch Project.
"When you're a teenager is when you first start getting introduced to the idea that your opinions are viable. Here, you have a commercial that reinforces that, not just the ad industry playing to natural teen mind-sets," says Hale.
The "do-it-yourself" ads, shot on digital video, grew out of the Web site's brand positioning, toward its online community for 15-to-24 year-olds. Much like in Sprite's "Voices" campaign, teens share their thoughts and experiences on camera. In one ad, a girl thanks her parents for putting her in rehab. In another, a boy confronts his ex-girlfriend about her infidelity. Some of the ads were shot alongside the production team; others were left to the teens.
For Sprite, the shift in creative direction came straight from the target group. A 10-minute research film created by Earl Griffin, a New Jersey filmmaker who became known to the agency through his underground hip-hop documentary Reel to Real, provided the shop's creative team with the impetus for the campaign.
"We have to give credit to the research for bringing this back intact," says Waldman. "Seeing these kids freestyling was so powerful; we knew we had something."
Drawing on the brand's hip-hop heritage, Waldman and his partner on the account, Dean Hacohen, gave the teens general cues, such as "not too sweet," to reinforce product points. The kids engineered the rest.
"Hip-hop touches all the kids of America," says Griffin of his interest in shooting Sprite ads. "It transcends culture and race because it is such a big part of the market. Even more than that, the [kids] are using the best instrument you have, which is your voice."
While the client and agency say it it's too early to assess the impact of the month-old campaign, they do plan to extend the TV ads to radio and promise more ads centered on teen spirit. "We are going to tap into new areas and find other ways that kids can tell stories about their lives," says Hacohen.
Levi's is also expected to unveil a series of ads next fall in the style of the "Karaoke" campaign. "Think of it as a sequel," says Steve LeNeveu, director of account planning at TBWA\C\D, San Francisco.
Although the agency is in development on new executions, LeNeveu says viewers will continue to see a mix of low-tech ads, like "Karaoke," story-driven ads like "Badger" as well as commercials with higher production values, like "Mr. Fix It." "We're still mixing and matching," he says.
LeNeveu admits finding the right voice for Levi's has been a learning process for the agency, which has seen the brand's advertising evolve from the "Opt for the original" platform of 1999 to the current "Make them your own" tagline.
An early focus group found the target audience valued the notion of being true to themselves more than being famous, says LeNevue, so it's only natural Levi's would focus on themes of identity, integrity and self-expression.
When the agency asked kids what the statement "Make them your own" meant during the research phase, the responses echoed these key themes. More significantly, the tagline allowed teens to wear the product rather than have the product wear them.
"You can buy a style or you can make your own style and start your own trend," says LeNeveu. "That to me is making a connection with a young audience. I make the jeans, they don't make me."
So far, results seem positive. "We're seeing huge improvements in cut-through," LeNeveu says. "It's really registering."
Breaking through the proverbial clutter is what gives Levi's spots their power, but Bogusky warns teens don't always buy [the reality concept], even if it is real.
"People are still skeptical about it," he says. "The only thing it can do is not be the same boring thing. That's what you are really trying to do; you are just trying to surprise someone."
Technique alone won't make the connection. And sometimes, even if all the pieces of the puzzle seem to fit, the subtleties that make an average ad a great one are elusive.
A 1998 Levi's campaign titled "What's True" tried to illustrate how young people think of themselves with unscripted spots directed by documentarian Errol Morris, but they failed to resonate as strongly as the agency hoped.
Each spot presented a close-up monologue of what Levi's deemed "unedited truths" about the kids in the ads. Best friends talked about their Tibetan-inspired tattoos, a surfer discussed rushing from the beach to school.
"It's hard to do it without trying too hard," says LeNeveu of the effort. "It might be true, and it might be what they say. But if you miss by an inch, you miss by a mile."