The Horror! SS+K Uses Scare Tactics to Urge Young People to Face Their Debts

Creepy short film is not what it appears

The phrase "debt management" doesn't exactly scream "horror film," but that's the unusual route that SS+K took in teasing a program that helps college students and graduates face up to their debt.

The New York-based agency produced The Red, an eight-minute psychological thriller (scroll down to watch it) that premieres Thursday night before screenings of Iron Man 3 in Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Tampa, Fla., and Washington, D.C. In the film, a ruby-colored fog haunts a twentysomething woman until she manically retreats to her bedroom and seals the door with duct tape. It feels like a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Black Swan, with a dash of Lost.

Five weeks ago, the agency began marketing The Red simply as a new film from award-winning directors Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond of Borderline Films. (The editor was Andrew Marcus, who also edited American Psycho.) Through wild postings, a Web site and trailers at college movie theaters, SS+K built anticipation for the release. At the end of the premiere tonight, screen copy will reveal that "The Red is real. It's a suffocating cloud of student loans, debt and financial woes."

The copy also will include references to and SALT, a debt management program from American Student Assistance in Boston. The Web site, which previously served as a promotional tool for the movie, now morphs into a hub for SALT, which isn't an acronym but rather a sly nod to an early form of currency.

ASA hired SS+K last fall, based on some of the agency's past work, including a documentary to introduce Korean pizza chain Mr. Pizza to the U.S. and brand consulting work for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which gave rise to the name Livestrong. The Red represents the shop's first work for ASA and the nonprofit's biggest marketing push ever.

Beyond the film screenings and Web site, the campaign includes digital ads and a Facebook application that registers users for a $10,000 sweepstakes contest. ASA also is partnering with The Onion (for a behind-the-scenes spoof of the making of the film), MTVu (to give away a college scholarship) and CollegeHumor (for a contest called the Broke-Ass Student Scholarship).

The film cost less than $1 million to make, and total media spending will be in the range of $3-5 million, according to Sue Burton, ASA's managing director of consumer product and marketing. So, the horror-film route was not only unusual for an organization known historically as a guarantor of student loans but also cost-effective.

Selling the approach to ASA's board of bankers and educators required some priming. Burton reached out to select board members individually before presenting the film concept to the group. The resulting campaign represents just what Burton was looking for: something edgy that captures the paralysis that students feel when they're in debt and the catharsis that ASA can provide through SALT. The movie ends with the frenzied woman being rescued by her roommate after the fog pins the woman against a window ledge. That scene gives way to the screen copy reveal.

Will the reveal of a debt-management program be a letdown compared to the intense drama of the movie?

"It was something that we were really aware of the entire time we were writing the script and coming up with it. You know, 'How do we end this so it's not a groan?' " said Bobby Hershfield, chief creative officer at SS+K.  "We hope that the ending feels like the happy ending, a kind of resolve. And then it drives you to the site, and they can actually engage in the site, learn about the tools to help conquer the debt and face the fears. The solution and the ending sort of play into the proposition that we introduced."

Burton, who'll see the reaction firsthand at a Boston theater tonight, doesn't seem worried. After all, there are strands of the subject matter seeded throughout the movie. In one scene, for example, the main character vents to her mom on the phone about mounting bills.

"There are clues all along, and the surprise is that this is a movie that has more meaning. I think that it's just another layer," Burton said. "It's like The Sixth Sense. You're like, 'Oh, that was there all along and I didn't see it.' You know, 'I see debt people.' "

"I don't think it's a twist as much as it's, 'Oh, there's more here than I thought,' " added Burton. "So much of this financial information and debt management talks to people in rational terms, assuming that they're proactively shopping for information or going to research things. I think this hits you in your gut."