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Vice is a Good Thing

Not too cool to brand

By Zainab Zakari

What happens when a brand synonymous with underground culture gets so big that it’s no longer underground? In the case of Vice Magazine, it could bottle its potent formula for how-to-expand-the-brand-while-pissing-off-The-Man and pass it around.

That sounds almost altruistic for a magazine staffed by “the most arrogant people” that Van Toffler, the president of MTV Networks’ music group, says he has ever met. But it’s in synch with the hipster bible’s new ambitions. In Wired’s October 2007 issue, co-founder Shane Smith said that Vice plans to get serious. Instead of emphasizing topics that would get most people in trouble—like making fun of homeless people or highlighting artists who create toys that look like shit (literally)—the magazine now boasts international reporting from Darfur and Korea. Seriousness does have its limits, though. It still relishes printing headlines like “Under the Fuzz: Sex Vid are Hard to Find” and “Shitgazers United.”

Vice could make this mission-shift work because of its large, dedicated audience: more than one million in North America and still more overseas. Fans have followed the Vice brand to many different media since it was founded in 1994, from television to books and music, so why should a detour into journalism scare them away? “Our audience has a strong bullshit detector,” Vice’s Hosi Simon says. “It’s easy for us to talk to them.”

Vice has come a long way from its origins as the project of two welfare dependents (who cheated their way onto the welfare rolls) and a recovering heroin addict. Founders Suroosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes (who has since left the magazine) and Shane Smith moved their small magazine, Voice of Montreal, from Canada to New York in 1996 and renamed it Vice. The monthly magazine sidled its way into record stores, skate shops and clothing boutiques on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. It was free until about three years ago, when the magazine began offering subscriptions to satisfy would-be readers who couldn’t find Vice in their neighborhoods.

Vice has spread to 14 countries, with eight more editions scheduled for launch this year. It has also expanded the brand to include films, music albums, books and its own online television channel, VBS.TV, which snared MTV’s attention and investment. No wonder it had the audacity to start its own marketing agency; clearly, Vice knows a thing or two about infiltrating the market, and is in a unique position to tell other companies how to do the same.

The agency, Virtue, was founded in 2006. In addition to working on internal marketing, its eight-person staff advises companies from Adidas and American Apparel to Pabst Blue Ribbon and Colt 45 on how to reach their target audience: the sneaker-wearing, video-game playing, cheap-beer-drinking set.

Simon likens Vice to a translator for young people, and companies want to learn to speak their language. For example, Virtue recently offered music suggestions and shot short films to market Electronic Arts’ video game Rock Band.

Virtue will also help market Vice’s first film, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which made its U.S. debut at New York’s Underground Film Festival in April. The documentary, which reports on the challenges facing the only heavy-metal band in Iraq, was inspired by a Vice magazine article. “We never set out to make a feature-length documentary,” co-producer Suroosh Alvi told the audience in a dank Lower East Side theater at the film’s premiere. “We thought it would be an eight- or 10-minute piece for DVD or the website.” But they really liked getting to know the band members, and the film grew.

One of its opening scenes exemplifies Vice’s fusion of seriousness with attitude. In Baghdad, Alvi turns to the camera while getting outfitted with a bullet-proof vest. “This is risky. It’s dangerous,” he says. “People would say it’s really fucking stupid for us to be doing this. But, you know, heavy metal rules.”

Correction:  The printed version of the article included an incorrect quotation by Mr. Simon regarding the bullshit detector of Vice’s audience.  It has been corrected in the website edition.

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