Robert Lee stands before the camera, arms crossed. “A bouncer in Birmingham hit me in the face with a crescent wrench five times,” he says, a grim look on his face. “And my wife’s boyfriend broke my jaw with a fence post.”
But this is not an episode of Cops. It’s an understated, honest and amazingly entertaining web commercial for Lee’s mobile-home dealership. The clip features the Alabama business’ actual employees and, while it might not have spurred sales of used double-wides, it has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube since its release late last year.
Created by North Carolina-based comedy team Rhett & Link, the minute-and-a-half ad is one in a string of similar spots they’ve put together under the I Love Local Commercials banner. Part legitimate advertisement, part Ali G-style parody, the clips focus on real people (and sometimes real animals), and boast a surprisingly funny sensibility that plays on the notoriously low-brow aesthetic of local TV advertisements. The resulting videos have become a viral sensation, gaining the DIY filmmaking duo a worldwide following.
While the I Love Local Commercials clips undeniably cast their subjects in a strangely funny light, the creative team behind the ads claims they’re not playing “gotcha” with the people in their videos.
“Everyone involved in the project knows that they’re going to be part of a funny web video,” Rhett McLaughlin told Wired.com in an e-mail interview. “It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to know exactly how the commercial is going to be funny, but we make an effort to make sure that people will ultimately be happy when they see the final product, not embarrassed.”
Rhett & Link’s website provides behind-the-scenes footage showing the light-hearted atmosphere that reigns during the commercial shoots.
“We’re confident that there’s a clear difference between the way we interact with people and how, for example, Sacha Baron Cohen does,” McLaughlin said. “We aren’t potentially ruining peoples’ lives, and we don’t plan to.”
True Blue Tattoo in Austin, Texas, is the subject of Rhett & Link’s latest commercial, released Wednesday. Owner Charles Alberty said he initially harbored a bit of trepidation about opening up his tattoo parlor to the I Love Local Commercials crew.
“I was concerned, but what they’re doing is funny,” Alberty said in an e-mail interview. “If you look at all of their commercials, you know it’s coming from a cool place. Everyone’s got to be able to laugh at themselves. I was more concerned with all the artists at the shop being into it, or hip to doing it.”
“It was a fun day,” he said. “They’re some silver-tongued devils, too, for talking people into some of the things they do…. They came in at 1 in the morning and left in the night and that was it. And they got their butts tattooed.”
Lifelong friends, McLaughlin and his partner in crime, Link Neal, have been honing their chops since childhood, first by taping radio shows starring themselves. Getting their hands on a camcorder was the logical next step in their careers as DIY comedy videographers.
“In rural North Carolina, you can get lots of great advice about how to clean and quarter a deer carcass,” McLaughlin said. “But we didn’t really have anyone to ask for video advice, so we just kept learning through trial and error.”
Pursuing engineering degrees at North Carolina State University, the pair dabbled in entertainment. Borrowing equipment and editing on VCRs, they produced videos for campus ministry meetings. Despite lacking professional training and a proper video crew, Rhett & Link have taught themselves to produce high-quality content with less than $5,000 in gear.
“As with everything with us, we do this out of necessity,” McLaughlin said. “We haven’t shed our engineering pragmatism, so we accomplish things in the simplest manner possible. It helps with budget, obviously. We’re not getting rich off web video, and we’re supporting two families with our income, so we need to keep as much of the budget to ourselves” as possible.
The I Love Local Commercials campaign grew out of a partnership with risk-management company MicroBilt, which funds the project and is sponsoring a contest for small businesses interested in turning their own teams into unlikely web stars. The commercials cost the businesses nothing, and there are no strings attached.1
Rhett & Link have unleashed eight ads so far in the I Love Local Commercials campaign, crafting spots for enterprises like the Salt Lake City Community College Barbering & Cosmetology School (subtly titled “Mormon Haircuts – Crazy Local Commercial” on YouTube). A clip for the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens (“Inappropriate Zoo Commercial,” above) focuses on animals’ bodily functions.
Possibly the team’s most famous commercial, for The Red House Furniture store in High Point, North Carolina, played on race relations.
“I’m Richard, aka Big Head,” says one employee. “I work at the Red House and I’m black. I like pumpin’ iron and pumpin’ furniture into people’s homes.”
“I’m Johnny, aka 10 Gauge. I work at the Red House and I’m white,” says another. “I like deer huntin’, bass fishin’ and extendin’ credit to all people.”
A series of testimonials, backed by Rhett & Link’s cheesy music and catchy vocal harmonies, ultimately sell the message: The Red House is for all people.
Rhett & Link’s work in advertising goes back to 2007. Having built an audience through online comedy sketches and music videos, they were tapped by the CW Network to co-host reality show Online Nation. When the series about internet culture was canceled after only four episodes, they found themselves unemployed and desperate (but only after putting together a humorous video about the death of their show).
“Our backs were against the wall, so we began approaching brands and asking them to sponsor our videos,” McLaughlin said. Dusting off an old song about a beanbag-toss game known as cornhole, they created their first comedic commercial (above) and eventually landed their first real advertising gig.
“We wrote and conceptualized the song, then approached several cornhole game suppliers,” said McLaughlin. “We went with the one who responded, naturally.”
A growing reputation brought marketing firms calling. Alka-Seltzer’s ad agency hired Rhett & Link to shoot 21 videos over the course of a summer road trip.
They have also resumed television work, shooting musical segments for Science Channel show Brink as well as online content for NBC Universal and TV Guide Broadband. They sell songs on iTunes and CD (a new record, Up to This Point, dropped last week) and hawk T-shirts, mugs and assorted memorabilia on their site.
In 2008, they shot a feature-length documentary called Looking for Ms. Locklear about their attempt to reconnect with their first-grade teacher.
“We’ve always wanted to be filmmakers,” said McLaughlin, who says the movie-making process was very different from creating web videos and “was ultimately a more rewarding experience.” The resulting film won awards at the Ace and Secret City Festivals and garnered a Southern Lens Award in South Carolina.
“The success of those web videos has fueled all sorts of opportunities,” McLaughlin said. “Our focus is to continue to pioneer branded entertainment online, and consider opportunities as they come. We’re smart enough to know that we can’t bite the hand that feeds us and neglect our internet presence.”
Despite success bridging the gap between advertisement and entertainment, their production studio and office continues to be a spare room in McLaughlin’s father-in-law’s building.
“It’s a bit ratty (sometimes literally), but it meets our needs well,” McLaughlin said. “It also keeps us grounded. When the business above us flushes their toilet, we have to stop filming.”
1. Correction: This story has been updated to correctly relate MicroBilt’s role in the I Love Local Commercials project.