CollegeHumor Creates Breakout American Eagle Ad—for a Fake Product

Site rejiggers business around branded entertainment videos that are actually good

Brands as publishers, native advertising, branded entertainment. Sometimes digital advertising sounds like a bad joke. But when done well, it can be the funniest stuff on the Web. As long as brands leave it to the professionals.

Take this week’s April Fools video from American Eagle Outfitters. The clip, produced by IAC's CollegeHumor (with help from Arnold Worldwide), showed real shoppers being ambushed by sales folks peddling spray-on skinny jeans. That clip followed up on a bogus commercial for “skinny skinny” —i.e., jeans for people who think jeggings are just too baggy.

Since CollegeHumor posted that video on Mar. 21, it generated 1.5 million views on YouTube and other outlets, outdoing many of the site's originals by a wide margin. It was quickly highlighted on NBC’s Today Show.

That’s not even close to a record. A five-clip series about the male brain, called Every Seven Seconds—which CollegeHumor produced last spring for Axe—generated 7 million views. Another series of videos for Listerine that centered around a bad-breath challenge (Will It Kill It) yielded 3 million-plus views and resulted in an extended segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Notice we didn’t say “campaign.” This stuff is content, and CollegeHumor labels these shows as "originals." No sponsored post labels here.

“We’ve been doing this for five years,” said CEO Paul Greenberg. 

In fact, CollegeHumor has two full-time staffers, both former comedy writers, who work only on branded entertainment content. But it’s not uncommon to have talent from CollegeHumor’s hits (like Jake From Jake and Amir) appearing in advertisers' funded clips.

“We started to realize that we had a unique offering,” said Greenberg. “So we re-orged the team a few years ago. We used to have actual editors brainstorm for RFPs. We realized that wasn’t going to scale. So we hired two comedy writers and put them in our ads sales group.”

The company also reorganized its production team, editors and film crews to adapt to the demand. Per Greenberg, 70 percent of CollegeHumor’s ad campaigns include some sort of native or custom content. “The audience is responding, these videos are really viral,” he said.

Greenberg acknowledges that not every client gets how much letting go this entails. It helps, he said, when brands have a sense of humor. In fact, a few years ago, CollegeHumor’s edit staff did a spoof video depicting a fake American Eagle photo shoot gone wild. “We loved it,” said Brian Franks, vp of creative marketing at the retailer.

”We’ve been really looking for the right opportunity for comedy in this space," Franks added. "Sometimes fashion people are timid.”

But Eagle was up for making fun of itself—and its customers—in a sense. After talking to several directors and vendors, they settled into CollegeHumor. Soon Franks' team found themselves discussing close-ups of “ass cheeks.”

“It’s been a great experience, honestly,” Franks said. Besides producing the content, CollegeHumor provides American Eagle with a promotional media campaign for the show, including banners and pre-rolls. “We treated this as a real product,” he said.

The brand even had several hundred people trying to buy its bogus spray-on jeans on the Web on April Fools' Day (American Eagle gave the gullible shoppers $10 gift cards).

But most of the time, CollegeHumor isn't looking to trick anybody with branded content. Rather, the company is trying to make good content that brands fund. "If it’s not good, it won’t get passed along," Greenberg said.