OK, you just read the headline, saw the embedded video, and you’re snickering. Let me explain.
When I founded this site, I vowed never to post the Smirnoff “Tea Partay” video, which had become infamous in the online world of Tradsville. But I recently began covering digital marketing for Yahoo!, and found myself chatting with Kevin Roddy of BBH New York, who was the creative director of the video. How could I not ask him about it?
Turns out the video, produced in June 2006 and considered one of the first successful viral marketing videos on YouTube, became a hit by total accident. Read on to find out how as we go behind the scenes at the Tea Partay afterparty. — CC
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IS: “Tea Partay” is considered perhaps the first viral marketing video to be a huge hit on YouTube.
KR: Yes, it was one of the first true experiments in this space. It used YouTube in a way it really hadn’t been used before. It hit a million people in three or four days, which was massive at the time.
IS: Who came up with the idea?
KR: The guy who wrote it is named Matt Ian. He grew up in Greenwich, CT, but if you asked him, you would never guess in a million years that’s where he’s from. He’s tattooed, has long greasy hair, dresses like a slob — but he grew up surrounded by all of this. In fact, the guy who invented Top-Siders lived just a few houses away.
Because Raw Tea was tea and alcohol, he got the idea to use those two juxtaposed elements and use two other ones. So tea can be the Nantucket world, for lack of a better term, and alcohol can be this urban world. So that’s how the idea came to him.
IS: The video has a great eye for details of the WASP wardrobe that are ripe for parody.
KR: Oh yeah, there’s a shot of the khakis with whales on them, and Top-Siders and the sweater tied around the neck. That came from Matt, and when we were looking for a director, we needed two things, but the most important was somebody who understood the way rap videos are shot. If you study rap videos, which we did, there are clichés. There’s always the shot of a girl coming out of a swimming pool, they’re always shot low looking up so they’re intimidating looking down at the camera. We went to Little X, who was a rap music video director, so he knew that side of the equation. Then we hired a stylist, Rachel Johnson, who really understood preppy.
IS: What impact did it have on sales?
KR: I honestly don’t know. The funny thing was that it was literally a New England test-market launch. The product was only really available in New England. Now obviously you can’t compartmentalize the Internet like that. So what happened was there were distributors all over the country going, “How can I get this? I’m getting people calling and wanting to buy it and I don’t know anything about it.” It did cause quite a roar in that way.
IS: How long was the shoot?
KR: It was a fast one. It might have been one day, possibly two. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we couldn’t spend a lot of time. For us, the director and the production company, it was a bit of a labor of love. A lot of people invested time, effort and money because they loved the idea so much.
IS: What was the budget?
KR: That I don’t remember.
IS: Tell us about the casting.
KR: We put out a casting call, giving a brief to the casting director saying here’s the type of people we’re looking for. We made judgments based on the casting session, then when we got them on the set we worked with them, they rehearsed and got into character.
IS: I don’t usually go for blondes, but there’s one in there who’s just the cutest thing ever.
KR: Yeah, I know what you mean. I know who you’re talking about.
IS: What else has she done?
KR: I have no idea; I’ve never seen her in anything. But I’m sure she’s in stuff.
IS: Was the plan for the video that it be disseminated on YouTube?
KR: When we finished it, we wanted to control the distribution, but it somehow leaked out onto YouTube, and to this day I don’t know how. It wasn’t something we meant to do. Somebody posted it, and to this day I don’t know who it was, and it just exploded.
IS: So that whole YouTube phenomenon wasn’t even planned?
KR: It was not. At the end of the spot, it says “Go to teapartay.com, playa,” and the website wasn’t even live. So all those millions of people who went to the site, there wasn’t even anything there yet. That’s how unprepared we were.
The original idea, which all went to hell in a handbasket, was that we were going to launch that piece, and there was a verse in the lyrics that we held aside. And what we were going to do was say that after this happened, these guys split up and one of them found this extra verse, which would give it a chance to sort of live again. And we were going to do all this stuff, and there was going to be an East Coast v. West Coast thing, but it all fell apart. But it exploded so magnificently, in a way we hadn’t anticipated, that it was all a good thing.
IS: How often do you get asked about it?
KR: Oh, I still get asked about it today. How often? It’s slowed down a little bit, but those first few years, man, all the time. There were so many spoofs of it that it was hard for it not to be kept alive.