Go backstage at The Vans Warped Tour and you come home with Yoo-Hoo on your lips.
It’s funny how a guy can get to like Yoo-Hoo in one afternoon.
The distinctive chocolate drink traveled with The Vans Warped Tour this summer — its third year with the music festival, but my first. Since I have poor judgment on punk rock, I invite three teens to size up the marketing pitches in exchange for a backstage pass. Ryan and Sam, both 16, and Dylan, 13, are happy to oblige.
On the two-hour drive to the show, I “interview” the boys: What do you expect today? How do you feel about advertising? What brands do you like? Which do you avoid? I prime them to notice marketing and tell them to keep journals. They tell me marketers ripped kids off at Woodstock ’99 by charging $5 for a bottle of water. “What’s the connection between a corporate sponsor and a $5 bottle of water?” I ask. They answer in their journals.
These shows are put on by corporations. They don’t care about the music. They just want to make money. Advertising takes away from the music and the real reason people come to the concert. — Ryan
From the front gate, Warped looks like the state fair in a tattoo parlor. Cheese curd and mini-donut stands surround a steel globe with two motorbikes racing inside. Four stages, a half-pipe for skateboard demos, and two dozen or so booths sit in a loose ring atop a gentle slope. Mentos samples litter the ground.
Already I see so many subliminal advertisements. A giant half-pipe with giant Target signs. Mentos wrappers all over the place. No free food. — Dylan
Nothing is ever free, especially food. — Ryan
We stop first at Pontiac’s site: Two Vibes on display, a spray-painting artist on stage, and a sleek DJ inviting girls to start the dance party. There’s a booth with stickers (“Hello! My Vibe is …”) and entries for the What Color is Your Vibe? sweeps. I make Ryan fill one out, although Sam won’t enter. All three are annoyed that Pontiac’s canned music clashes with the live bands, and they think Pontiac’s reps are insincere. “They’re not really connected to what’s going on,” Sam says.
“They’re just trying to be cool, but corporations can’t be cool,” Ryan adds — then admits that the car is cool, the contest is cool, and winning a trip is cool (even though he’d rather have the car). No one mentions the spray painter. But Dylan puts the “Hello, my Vibe is …” sticker on his pants.
Corporations are not cool. They take away from the music and the independent image of the whole thing. — Ryan
We slouch past the bands’ booths, where some are signing autographs and others are selling CDs and T-shirts. The guys have all brought white T-shirts for autographs, but Sam buys an AFI CD for $10. They like the price.
We go backstage to interview AFI’s bass player, Hunter Burgan, who says sponsor reps are, for the most part, cool. “They watch our sets and they’re generous to us. Target gave us all towels and toothpaste,” and others give practical gifts, too. Burgan wears free Converse canvas shoes but turns down title sponsor Vans’ because leather shoes are “not what I’m interested in.”
The guys ask if specific sponsors add to or detract from concerts. Burgan says neither. “You could throw any sponsors’ names up there and it wouldn’t make any difference to kids.” At the same time, he says, “Corporate sponsorship doesn’t hinder the music. The bands here play the same music they would anywhere.”
He signs our CDs and shirts before we head back into the sun, soaking in Target’s Reverse Day Care booth (30 parents waiting out the day in air-conditioned quiet) and Sit & Spin with Target: Spin the carnival wheel for prizes including backstage passes and mountain bikes. A sign admonishes: “No whining about your prize. It was free, wasn’t it?” The booth is jammed, so we take a pass.
Launch.com sponsors the meet-and-greet booth, with framed tour memorabilia and a respectable waiting line. The booth for Right Guard Xtreme Sport is apparently unmanned, with a dozen fans copping a seat in the shade. There are two tables with mini-skateboards and BMX bikes kids can “ride” with their fingers. The guys are quick to give it a thumbs down, and won’t even walk next door to the PlayStation booth to check out the games.
I liked it that MTV was using its name not to advertise, but to stop racism. — Ryan
We hightail it to the Yoo-Hoo RV, parked next to twin stages where bands alternate all day. A crowd has gathered to watch a guy chug seven cans of Yoo-Hoo and then puke it out his nose. Four reps — cute guys in their early 20s, dressed in brown gas station-attendant shirts — egg him on with a bullhorn and hand-made sign. He doesn’t come close to the record of 12 cans, but he gets a T-shirt anyway. This is the biggest, loudest booth crowd yet. The guys are grossed out but fascinated.
I was surprised at the popularity of Yoo Hoo. — Sam
Yoo-Hoo’s director of marketing, Kristin Krumpe, tells us the kind of stunts kids come up with to win boxer shorts. My favorite is the Yoo-Hoo Cutlet: Fans douse themselves, then roll around in the dust of a mosh pit.
Yoo-Hoo stopped TV advertising about a year ago, when its talent got popular and too expensive. The Warped Tour is great interaction for the brand, Krumpe says: “Punk rock is Yoo-Hoo.” She prefers the brand’s broad association with the tour to any single-band deals. It’s all about personal relationships, she adds. When featured band Less Than Jake changed labels and its new label wouldn’t pay for stickers, Yoo-Hoo printed up a bunch, gratis. The bands line up at the booth before show time for a case of drinks. There’s a post-show barbecue every night; tour founder Kevin Lyman gets miffed at sponsors who don’t show up, Krumpe says. If they don’t feel camaraderie, they shouldn’t be here.
Hey, with 42 days on the road together, how can you avoid camaraderie?
The smaller or more controversial a corporation is, the better the response it will get from kids. — Ryan
The Yoo-Hoo crew takes us onstage for sets by Less Than Jake and Atari. They like showing off their friendships with the bands, and get us photos and autographs. Yoo-Hoo beach balls bounce across the mosh pit.
The beach balls were a good way to advertise. — Ryan
I was impressed with Yoo-Hoo and its employees. — Sam
It’s no accident that the Yoo-Hoo van is so close to these stages. Crew chief John Donnelly cased the stage configuration when they drove up this morning. He figured the way traffic would flow, then suggested to Warped Tour bosses that Yoo-Hoo go in the busiest intersection. “They like having us in a prominent spot because there’s a lot going on at our booth,” he says.
Good view from top of Yoo-Hoo van. — Sam
Back at the booth, someone chugs 13 cans, setting a new record before he pukes. The crowd cheers. Who knew puking was a spectator sport?
We join the Yoo-Hoo crew on top of the RV to throw boxers, key chains, and beach balls to the crowd. Dylan and Sam are into it: Ryan stays on the ground to keep fans from rushing the van. Donnelly is dressed like Elvis, with a beach ball stuffed under his shirt. A guy yells out, “Yoo-Hoo sucks! Unless you throw me a beach ball for my kid.” Someone does.
I realized that corporations aren’t faceless. — Ryan
Krumpe gives the boys goodie bags. Dylan whoops when he sees the key chain, then tells her, “This is our official drink now.”
Driving home, the boys marvel that the bands are more human than they expected.
It was kind of weird being 10 feet away from these famous and worshipped musicians at all times and having to register the idea that these are real people I’m talking to, I’m not just watching a TV screen. — Dylan
I ask what they thought of the “corporate sponsors.” Seems those folks are more human than the boys expected, too. They see now that brands aren’t corporations — brands are the reps in the field, real people just like the bands. The key to keeping brand marketing authentic boils down to the relationships between the human beings out there — brands, bands, and consumers alike.
They wonder how to get a “Yoo-Hoo guy” job. Work your way up from the lemonade stall? “It’s better than being the French fry guy,” Sam offers.
In fact, Yoo-Hoo’s four reps are Market Reach field managers. The J. Brown/LMC unit recruits staffers through modeling agencies and via word of mouth. Two guys this year were Warped lemonade concessionaires last year; one came from a local radio station. Staffers get classroom training, then rehearse their gear set up and do the first show with Market Reach executives on hand. Once the tour begins, Market Reach spot-checks once a month or so.
The boys debate whether to frame their T-shirts or sell them on eBay. When I drop them at home, they say it’s been one of the best days, ever — for the music and the marketing.
Today I lived like a god. — Dylan