Introduction

Vice Media, Inc.’s branding is fundamentally about pushing boundaries. It is today’s avant-garde version of “the next ESPN, MTV and CNN rolled into one.” It takes an experimental and innovative approach to covering topics such as politics, art and culture – an approach that applies across all of its properties and content. A champion of the “Immersionist” form of journalism, it is an antithesis to the methods of mainstream news outlets. Vice’s success is mostly attributable to its highly critically acclaimed branding as authentic, edgy, innovative, risk-taking, adventurous, and its representation of ‘Hipsterdom.’ As the company has transitioned, so have the media formats it’s utilized, also serving as a brand tactic.

Vice – as a vehicle for vocalizing the ethos of Hipsterdom  – expanded that cultural movement and also enjoyed growth itself, as Hipsterdom has shifted further from subcultural to mainstream. Vice achieved this by executing authentic branding in line with its loyal brand community. The members of the community, Hipsters, were highly receptive to Vice’s brand messaging. As a proponent of subcultures and alternative ways of life, Vice has been the voice of this subcultural movement. It has even been widely coined “the Hipsters’ bible.” As Businessweek stated all the way back in 2005, “(Vice) reliably regards the world with unbridled ridicule,” and “it blends hip-hop and white postcollegiate hipsterism.” And, Vice has now trumpeted its alternative nature (along with Hipsterdom trumpeting Vice) into the mainstream and widened its target consumer base, accommodating the much broader demographic that identifies with Hipster aesthetics today.

What’s A Hipster?

Let’s take a closer look at Hipsterdom so we have a sharper understanding of the type of consumer, and their consumption habits, addressed in this essay:

Hipsterdom is a post-modern subculture of generally urban, middle-class, youthful people. Their identity is related to a statement by Marx: “the labour of the individual (the producer) asserts itself as part of the labour of society only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers” (Marx, 321). Hipsters are uber-conscious of how a consumerist culture is made on the back of the marginalized laborer. That’s why they actively resist feeding into “the system” through consumption of commodities that demonstrate their sensitivity to the ethical shortcomings of the mainstream. Hipsters fetishize the “authentic” as consumers because “authenticity” is different, tasteful and culturally aware – the backbone of their social character formation. They’re eclectic sensibilities are associated with indie music, a non-mainstream fashion sense, progressive and independent political views and alternative lifestyles, and the use of irony to express their often liberal arts degree-influenced critiques of the mainstream. You can read more on that here.

How Vice Does Branding

I will now discuss the ways in which Vice has cultivated its branding. As Banet-Weiser asserts, “Brands become the setting around which individuals weave their own stories… a brand is the perception – the series of images, themes, morals, values, feelings, and sense of authenticity conjured by the product itself” (Banet-Weiser, 4). We will see how Vice’s “setting” is designed to resonate with the Hipster world as a haven for them to “weave their own stories.” Vice serves as a benchmark for an accurate definition of the aesthetic.

Vice first truly made its name producing “The Vice Guide To Travel,” where co-founder Shane Smith went to some of the most extreme, intense, and violent populated areas in the world and completely immersed himself. In “The Vice Guide To Liberia,” Smith spent days with a former warlord who killed over 20,000 people, hung out with child heroin addicts and went to Liberia’s worst brothels, among other insane activities. As username ‘basil lutfi’ aptly stated in the comments section of the official YouTube video for the full-length documentary, “shane smith you’ve got balls.” The video has received 5.85 million views on YouTube, which is extremely rare for a 53:31 minute video.

More recently, he was one of the first Western journalists to get into North Korea and film extensively. He also managed to visit North Korea again with Dennis Rodman and The Harlem Globe Trotters to see Kim Jung Un. In late 2012, when software pioneer John McAfee was making international headlines for being on the run in Gautemala after he was linked to a murder, he allowed only Vice journalists to spend time with him. These acts served to brand Vice as able to do what no other media networks can, earning its authenticity and acclaim from those who want to identify, also, as unique, eclectic, alternative and adventurous. 

Another example of Vice’s taste-making success is its fashion-themed “Dos and Don’ts” section. This section hosts many slides of two images next to each other, labeled “Do” or “Don’t,” with a snarky, witty caption explaining the rationale. Many of the photos are snapped from the seediest sections of New York City’s and L.A.’s nightlife scenes, so the results are often quite interesting. This section literally started as a snarky, condescending way of making fun of hilariously dressed weird people – and to get good content out of it. Now, in existence for over 17 years, “Dos and Don’ts” has been turned into two books and heralded by multiple major media sources. The popular style blog Fashionista stated, “Long before street style became a phenomenon there was Vice ‘Dos and Don’ts.’” It’s also gotten praise from Gigaom and Gawker. Username ‘orlana’ went as far as to state, in the comments section of the second ‘Dos and Don’ts’ book’s page of goodreads.com, “This is the only book I have ever pre-ordered on Amazon… There is a release party tomorrow! Maybe I will even go and hobnob with the hiptastic-est hipsters! And let them judge me and my terrible fashion! Okay, maybe I won’t go. But I will buy the fuck out of this book.” It should also be noted that ‘orlana’ loves the Vice content but self-identifies as not a Hipster. Her comment was made on July 10, 2012, further evidence that by that date it was common for people not strictly within that subculture to be fans of Vice.

Vice’s Hipster Fans Through Images

Another way to identify Vice’s Hipster fans is through images from Vice’s Facebook.

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We see an individual wearing a plaid t-shirt in the center-most section of the photo, with a shirtless gentleman to the right who is full-bearded and bald. Plaid shirts and the full-bearded look have historically been associated with blue-collar men who live in rural environments and work in manual labor. These two people could very well live in Bushwick and do the opposite — which is ironic.

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A wholesome family brand ubiquitous throughout America’s mainstream cultural narrative re-appropriated in a subversive and explicit way — very hipster.

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Polka dots, tattoos, nose ring, tight-fitting jeans

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More plaid and micro-brews. Brooklyn Brewery is located in Williamsburg (across the street from Vice’s Brooklyn office).

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Please see the woman to the left who stands out the most in this picture. Being in your 50s-60s and coming to a Vice party with long dyed gold hair, extremely heavy make-up, leopard pants, an oversized belt and a feathered ornament around your neck is very, very hipster.

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More miscellaneous images of Vice party-goers in hipster-esque garb.

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Resistance To The Brand

The Vice brand has also been met with resistance, mainly by communities who identify as anti-culturally elitist, and are resentful of their perception that Vice has a self-labeled, ego-centric coolness identity. One such community is the followers of the Twitter account “Vice_is_hip.” The account is a series of fake Vice headlines, with the occasional re-tweet of a real Vice headline that sounds like it could just as easily be one of the fake Vice headlines. The account is a parody of Vice’s often bizzare, gonzo-journalism focused headlines that go to great rhetorical lengths to attract readers. This is a real Vice headline: “Exploring the depressing house of Michael Jackson’s disgraced dermatologist.” This is a parody Vice_is_hip headline: “Why Suge Knight is training up his nephew to fight in LA’s underground bare knuckle Bitcoin boxing scene.” This account has 57,696 followers as of January 26, 2014 and has been profiled in New York Magazine, Ad Age and The Independent. This demonstrates there are a solid-enough amount of people out there who resent Vice’s brand identity that all these major publications felt their readers would get a kick out of this parody. Yet, it further asserts Vice as polarizing, edgy and major enough to get – albeit negative – so much action from a simple parody Twitter account.

Widening Demographics

The company’s ideal customers have become more generalized than the more orthodox-level Hipster we have discussed until this point. Vice’s target market has expanded to merely youthful taste-makers with high cultural capital. Bourdieu defines ‘habitus’ as a “system of disposition, a system that organizes the individual’s capacity to act” (Lury, 91). These peoples’ habitus situates them in a position to be first to adopt what’s cool, achieving the representation of creative, autonomous and having alternative outlooks on the world and their lives. Their habitus leads to their high cultural capital. Other people, in theory, admire these free thinkers and follow their lead. Vice has applied its identity as an alternative frame of cultural reference by expanding its taste and sensibility to coverage of fashion, photography, sports, music and food – more avenues to assert its taste into a more complete set of queues for high cultural capital lifestyle formation.

Vice has also aggressively pushed into new platforms to deliver its content. As its music blog Noisey has become more successful and Vice was dramatically helping the careers of artists it discovered, it started a record label. This label has taken musicians who were completely unknown outside of their subcultural niches and brought them into the mainstream – much like Vice’s own progression. Two examples of musicians who’ve gone from nobody to famous via Vice Records are The Black Lips (116K Facebook Likes) and Action Bronson (164K Facebook Likes), a demonstration of the brand community’s reception. When YouTube rose, Vice began its highly successful YouTube channel and downscaling of its print magazine – matching the use practices of its mostly digitally native customers. It now has the capability of executing multi-platform brand integrations as part of its business model. For example, recently, Vice promoted the movie “Bad Grandpa” starring Johnny Knoxville by presenting a “Behind The Scenes” clip from the filming. Knoxville’s character Irving Zissman then co-starred in an episode of Vice’s series “Slutever.” Knoxville was also a guest on an episode of Vice’s podcast to talk about making the movie. This promotion’s views are easily calculable – thus, easily monetizable. Also, because of Vice’s brand loyalty on YouTube (over 4 million subscribers and over 357 million all-time video views), they can promote sponsors to the same amount of eyeballs as prime time advertising spots on major TV networks, but with extraordinarily lower production and syndication costs. The three Bad Grandpa-themed videos Vice put out on YouTube did a combined 1.45 million views. Bad Grandpa was directed by Vice’s former Creative Director, Spike Jonze. After vacating this position at Vice, he later went on to direct major successful films such as Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, and, quite recently, Her. Jonze is yet another example of Vice’s affiliation with a person or entity before they/it went mainstream – more public representation of Vice’s early-adopter taste.

This simple conversion of loyalty to (low-production cost) equity generates major brand value for Vice. Arvidsson explains, “Brand value represents the present value of predictable future earnings generated by the brand” (Arvidsson, 238). Vice’s ability to strongly promote co-branded content parallels Arvidsson’s statement, “one should consider the ‘emotional and self-expressive benefits as well as functional benefits,’” because the proof Vice has “fostered attachments” is in the brand community’s positive sentiment towards the Vice brand. Thus, Arvidsson’s statements demonstrate to us the symbiotic ties between Vice and Hipsterdom because – as we’ve discussed – Vice’s brand community is largely made up of those who subscribe to the Hipster aesthetic.

Vice + Hipsterdom Finally Mainstream

Vice has also moved into news and political coverage in two forms: serious documentary-style coverage and snarky, opinionated pieces. One of those snarky pieces is titled “The U.S. Government Shut Down Because Everything Is Stupid.” This is reflective of that political weariness and visible lack of affiliation of the Hipsters, expressed through irony and snark. Content in this vein may alienate certain consumers but Vice is successful because it is edgy. Yes, it wants to be digestible enough to attract a broad array of demographics but shedding its polarizing nature would be shedding its authenticity, its brand identity. Vice’s news and political coverage has become so successful that they had a news program air on HBO, which was renewed for a second season and nominated for an Emmy.

Having a show on HBO and being nominated for an Emmy is a very mainstream thing to do so it may seem to not fit with their image, but it does. It’s a powerful evolution of it. What it displays is that Vice has so successfully cast away the mainstream to create its own cultural movement that the mainstream is adopting it. It’s a Hipster’s ultimate dream come true; that the world you detest and critique is telling you you’re right and that it, in fact, wants to change for you, to fit you into it.

In short, what that means is Vice won. They took their subcultural movement mainstream, still keeping its core messaging and identity in tact. That is why Vice is now a $1.8 dollar company that Fox Searchlight recently purchased 5% of for $70 million. Again, a very mainstream, capitalistic move for the leader of alternative youth media, but very much a part of the grand strategy.

Conclusion

It is impossible to present empirical evidence proving Vice is directly responsible for the rise of today’s hottest cultural movement, Hipsterdom. But, I have demonstrated how they are inextricably linked, and how being a member of the Hipster community means it’s normal to be a Vice fan, and being a Vice marketer means it’s normal to go after the Hipster demographic.

And what a demographic it now is. Identity formation used to be predicated on where you were born, what family you were born into, and what geographic location you live in. Although these factors are still major, they have never mattered less. As Sophy Bot discusses in her TEDx Talk titled “The Hipster Effect,” you don’t really know what an object symbolizes today because re-appropriation and the ability to choose is ever-growing. You may see someone with a fedora on and think they’re a Hipster but their dad could have given it to them or a girlfriend simply told them it looked good. You don’t really know. Yet, we are so quick to judge people based on what we think the object means. She goes on to say how Senator Warren Hatch recently called President Obama a Hipster – and when the president is being accused of being a Hipster you know the word has reached a major level of cultural saturation. For example, Bot stated, Googling of the word “Hipster” has doubled since 2010.

Despite the word’s negative connotation, the cultural movement is still growing. Bot asks why that is. She concludes that it’s because more people are recognizing their freedom of choice – to do what they want and be who they want to be, whatever that may look like. This freedom has led to so much personal agency in re-appropriation of cultural symbols that commodities have fluid meanings now, lacking permanent definitions. This is what Arvidsson meant by, “Consumer goods function as ‘linking devices’ that enable the crystallization of however transitory (or even ‘neo-tribal’) forms of community” (242). I cannot help hear the term ‘neo-tribal community’ and not think of Bot’s examination of Hipsterdom. However, opaque and amorphous Hipsterdom may be, it is today’s booming neo-tribal community, linked by a consumer good such as Vice. Vice too is opening the flood gates of a new era of rule breaking in self-expression. Everyone in the community is connected by their flexibility in self-expression.

Again, it’s impossible to empirically prove Vice caused this cultural metamorphosis but, as I’ve examined, it is certainly the only media source so intertwined with and influential in Hipsterdom’s saga. Bot’s message has been personified in Vice’s content since day one so it isn’t surprising the growth rate of “the Hipsters’ bible” has paralleled Hipsterdom’s. And now that we apparently even have a Hipster president, time will only tell how far the movement, and the media brand, can go.

 


Arvidsson, Adam. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Culture. University of Copenhagen. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. Digital.

Banet-Weiser. Authentic. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture, 2nd Ed. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011. Print.

Marx, Karl. Capital: Critique of Political Economy. “Fetishism of Commodities.” Germany: Verlag von Otto Meisner, 1894. Digital.