From time to time, I review the physical objects from various transmedia projects. If you have a project and you want to send me something for review, drop it in the mail.
Usually, I review things I get in the mail from ARGS and the like. This edition of swag review is something a little different – something that just randomly fell on my desk yesterday morning.
This is Zipper magazine. It’s a promo mag for Levi’s Orange Tab, created by their dedicated agency Levi’s XX, and it’s being handed out at music festivals. That’s right, today I’m reviewing a piece of event swag. A print project, no less. More shocking still, it’s a piece of branded content. The scandal!
Before we open this beauty, let me tell you the remarkable story of how I ended up with this copy of Zipper. My parents found Zipper on a swag table at the Austin City Limits music festival. It was not handed to them by a street team member; it was on the table where promo items go to die. My mom picked it up, looked inside, and decided to keep the magazine. It was so funny and interesting that she brought it home with her. And then, about a week later, she picked it up again and started reading it aloud to me.
This is the trajectory that most brands hope their event swag follows – but most of the time their stuff just gets thrown out, or tossed in a swag bag and forgotten about. Which is to say that Zipper is a good piece of tangible. Really good.
The cover of Zipper is no put on or gimmick. Inside is a tone-perfect 60-page Rolling Stone-style rock magazine set in Topanga Canyon, 1972, complete with album reviews, letters to the editor, classifieds, local news, profiles of area DJs, horoscopes, and 16-page feature following a fictional band called Witches Hat on tour in Amsterdam.
Yes, that is a photograph of a man playing a flute to some tulips. Opposite, copy proclaims, “The flute in question is now hung in the Cincinnati Museum of Rock Curiosities, next to Eric Clapton’s appendix.”
The photography in this mag has a very distinct voice, tongue and cheek homage to the era. The members of Witches’ Hat meander through a flower-filled wood, relax drinking in a booth at a blues bar, and take a piss on the side of their tour RV. A fictional groupie holds a bright orange telephone to her ear as she pauses in painting her nails, a look of excitement on her face. A retired frontman sits in a field carving wooden mushrooms. Oh yes.
Caption from the mag: “Bryan plans to carpet Mirkwood Paddock with more than 3,000 hand-carved mushrooms by the year 1980.”
The writing is similarly delightful, managing to capture the joy of reading genuine old magazines. (I’ll admit, at first glance I thought Zipper was a mag out of my mom’s vintage collection.) The tone is earnest and passionate while being genuinely funny, with little details added in for realism. The result is a certain flavor of dry humor that reminds me a lot of Welcome to Night Vale, only set in the hip 70s microcosm of Topanga Canyon instead of a vortex of supernatural madness.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Witches Hat, ever since they were still Dirty Wurds in the late 60’s,” the feature begins. “I was still a teenager when Mind Potato was released, and it completely rewrote my musical DNA. Many inner parts of my mind are still potato shaped even now.”
“Every lyric from the album is tattooed on Bryan’s left thigh,” reads one highlighted quote. “We know a yogi who also does micro-calligraphy.”
One classified reads, “SIGNED SOCCER BALL. Unsure of name, could be Pele, could be Pete. Take a chance! Box 178”
And then there’s the local news.
There are 60 pages of Zipper, and almost every paragraph is like this.
At this point, my love for Zipper is pretty much unabashed. It has a vivid little world, interesting characters, gorgeous visuals and a streak of weirdness laced throughout. And did I mention all the little details? The faux black and white and color flats. The font and layout choices. The fake filler ads for the Pinballers Society and the Zappa sandwich grill (“Please send me your free guide to toasting sandwiches, including over 50 delicious new Swiss Cheese recipes.”) The appropriately-paged faux spot color. FAUX SPOT COLOR. ASHSDBSHVHG!
But, readers, we’re about to venture into choppy waters – for you see, Zipper is branded content. With the rare exception, branded content is not that great. The branding and the content tend to gloop into each other, and you end up with a sticky, unfocused, disingenuous mess. I’m happy to say that Zipper is one of those rare exceptions. In the end, I like the magazine more because of its brand tie ins, not less. Will wonders never cease?
All of the real adverts in Zipper are for Levi’s (with three exceptions – period ads for Fender, Jack Daniels and Schlitz) – and oh, these ads. Gorgeous. Some of the pieces are played straight…
….some are period tone pieces…
….and some are just plain weird.
The spots are done in such a variety of styles that it takes you a while to even notice as you jump over the ads, flipping through to the next piece of content. Of course, it should have been obvious since the mag is called Zipper. And every single person in it is wearing jeans. And there are URLS pointing to the Levi’s website sparsely scattered throughout. And whole zine has an orange color scheme to go with the Orange Tab branding. But those things occur to you later, after you’ve read a good bit of it.
(There’s also an ad for a free music festival put on by Levi’s which by all accounts amounted to a 1970’s themed Renaissance Fair.)
All of this works because there’s a pretty solid wall between the brand and the content. Levi’s is essentially playing along with the story rather than inserting itself, ham fisted, into the fictional world it’s created. They come across as a generous and entertaining host, rather than a sponsor in need of impressions.
That meant taking some risks for the sake of elegance and subtlety. For example, “Flared Jeans Can Save Your Life” – the story of a hiker saved from a fall by a snagging flare cuff – doesn’t mention a brand name at all. You won’t see the words “jeans” “denim” or “Levi’s” anywhere on the cover, or any reference to the brand in the magazine copy. The music festival serves as the in-world call to action, and every URL is fenced off in ad space. In a weird reversal, this fake branded magazine seems to have more journalistic integrity than many real world news outlets.
All in all, this is one of the best pieces of tangible I’ve seen this year. It’s playful, elegant, funny, and evocative. I’m keeping this one on my bookshelf – if my mom doesn’t steal it first. If you want to read it in digital form (which isn’t nearly as lovely as flipping randomly through the physical version), you can find it on the Orange Tab website.
Have some swag you’d like to see me opine on? Go right ahead and send it to me.