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Product Placement Creeps Into Amateurs' YouTube Offerings

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Matt Harding has this silly dance he does, this running-in-place thing where he waves his arms around spastically. If it had a name, you might call it the Excited Toddler.

But maybe you know Harding already. If you've already seen his latest online video, you'd remember it. In it, the 31-year-old does his jig with crowds of locals in exotic spots around the globe. The 4 1/2 -minute clip, featuring brief glimpses of 42 locales from Argentina to Zambia, is a smash hit on YouTube, where it is closing in on 6 million views.

Making these videos is what Harding has been doing for a living for a few years now, thanks to corporate sponsorship from a gum company and thanks to an era in which an online video clip made as a goof can grab more attention than a prime-time TV show commercial. This is Harding's third video and the second sponsored by Stride gum.

Product placement and corporate sponsorships have been seeping into new, user-generated turf lately. Last year, Dr Pepper sponsored production of a music video by YouTube star Tay Zonday, who is Web famous for his song "Chocolate Rain." This year, Sprint Nextel is offering a few bucks to people who incorporate a new Samsung phone into a home video and post the results to YouTube. The first 1,000 videos to incorporate the Instinct phone get $20 apiece, and one grand prize-winning entry will win $10,000.

"There are lots of people making a pretty good living off of being Internet famous," said Tim Hwang, organizer of a recent conference in Cambridge, Mass., dedicated to semi-serious discussions about Web culture. "Matt's a notable example because he's been able to do it for so long."

Internet culture, Hwang said, has spent most of its existence in its own in-jokey world, but that's changing quickly. And as deep-pocketed corporate entities turn to user-generated channels looking for attention, there's no telling how things will play out.

"It's still an open question whether big business is going to play Internet culture's game, or if Internet culture is going to play the big business game," Hwang said.

It's easy to understand why sites like YouTube are attractive to advertisers and corporate sponsors. Getting a 30-second commercial on the air in front of a prime-time audience costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; uploading a video to YouTube costs nothing. Big-name entities from Revlon to Coldplay have recently sponsored contests on the video site.

Greg Sterling, analyst at marketing research firm Sterling Market Intelligence, said that it's sometimes tough to determine whether popular phenomena like Harding's dancing videos result in actual sales. The California Raisins commercials were a hit in the '80s, for example, but the Claymation marketing campaign did little for the sale of actual California raisins.

In terms of brand recognition, though, Stride's sponsorship would have to be considered a success, he said. After all, we're talking about it. "I'd never heard of Stride gum before; had you?" he asks. (I had not.)

Among the thousands of comments posted on the sites discussing Harding's video, a few say they're now going to buy Stride gum because of the company's support for the project. But most log on to declare their affection for the video. "I'm pretty sure that is the best thing I've ever seen on the internet," writes one anonymous viewer, in one of thousands of similar reactions posted to the Web. "How can something that goofy be that moving?"

One funny thing about Harding's video, which compresses 14 months of travel into a few quick minutes, is that it's possible to watch it without realizing that this is anything but a self-funded project. Harding doesn't wear a Stride T-shirt in the video; he doesn't even appear to chew gum. Stride is thanked in a two- to three-second spot at the end of the video.

Harding's travels got started in 2003 when he decided he didn't love his job at a video game company quite enough to stay around. So he quit and used his savings to do some traveling. As a passing joke, one of Harding's friends suggested, in Vietnam, that he do that goofy dance of his and videotape it. It became a running gag. When he got home, he posted the results to his personal Web site. Within weeks, the video had gone viral.

Later, Stride contacted Harding to see if he wanted to travel the world again and make another video -- this time on its tab. Though he felt trepidations about corporate sponsorship, Harding said he was impressed that the company didn't want him to hawk their product.

"Nobody really wanted to mess with what he does and what he is," said Emily Liu, senior brand manager for Stride, who said that the company did not consider trying to make Harding's latest video more of an overt commercial. "We think Matt embodies the spirit and the personality of our brand."

Stride, which markets itself as "the ridiculously long lasting gum," didn't want to talk about the particulars of its sponsorship. Harding says he's doing well enough for himself, though he still drives the same car he drove before Stride came along.

Harding is reluctant to offer up an explanation of why his videos have struck a chord with millions of online viewers because "the less you say about what you think it means, the more open to interpretation it is and the more potent it is."

But he does offer up this much: "We all need to be reminded sometimes that we're all pretty much the same. We all giggle in the same way and we all get goofy in the same way, or in a similar way."

Stride officials say they're open to another project with Harding. He says he's busy staying on top of his e-mail at the moment and hasn't figured out what's next. When I talked to him, he was at home in Seattle, about to have lunch with his mom.

"I just got home," he said. "It's funny, you spend a year making a four-minute video and people say, 'That's great! When's the next one coming out?' "

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