Can't bust 'em

For its ambitious campaign to rebrand itself, Lee Jeans took to the Web and revived one of its 1920's icon -- Buddy Lee.

For its ambitious ad campaign, Lee Jeans took to the Web. And we're not talking banner ads.

Meet curry, a "slim, handsome race car driver," with "an attractive body and haircut." He's also the star of Rubberburner.com, a Web site so audaciously white-trash that it begs to be forwarded to your 65 closest friends as a gag. And that's the whole idea.

Ever since Mahir made his deer-in-the-headlights debut on the Web, kitschy,

"This segment is already overexposed to advertising and we knew we'd have to do something to get their attention."

Kathy Collins, vice president of marketing, Lee

homemade sites have gained mass-market appeal. But Curry's Rubberburner seems almost too hilarious and conspicuously free of typos. A quick DNS check reveals the truth: Curry is no Mahir. Rubberburner.com is the brainchild of Fallon McElligott, an advertising agency that built the Rubberburner site to sell Lee brand dungarees to teenage boys.

What gives? Curry is swathed in red leather, not denim, and the Lee brand is nowhere to be found. Actually, Curry is only one small part of a unique, viral, interactive advertising campaign created by Fallon for Lee Jeans, which may be the first of its kind in the world.

"It all starts with the business problem we're trying to solve, as opposed to how cool can we be this year," says Rob White, president of Fallon Minneapolis. That problem was reaching cynical, video game–playing teenage boys.

"The women's business has always been the largest, but we knew there was an opportunity on the male side," says Kathy Collins, Lee's vice president of marketing. "This segment is already overexposed to advertising and we knew we'd have to do something to get their attention. We wanted to snap their heads back and make them say 'Whoa! That's Lee?' "

Lee's rebranding began in 1997 with a new line of wide-legged, baggy dungarees for boys, followed by a desperate quest to gain market share in a segment dominated by Levi's and the Gap. After months of focus group–testing marketing angles, an archivist stumbled upon Buddy Lee, a blank-eyed doll that had been Lee's brand mascot in the 1920s and 1930s. "I went to my boss and told him, 'We're bringing Buddy back,' and he said, 'You're kidding, right?' But young kids think that doll is really cool," says Collins. Seeding Buddy's cool factor with underground efforts like a Comedy Central mockumentary that aired at 2 a.m., Fallon began building the doll into an icon of "unstoppable spirit." "We call him the Man of Action, even though he never moves or even blinks," deadpans Fallon art director Paul Malmstrom. White says Buddy's righteous innocence was a reaction to growing cynicism in pop culture, but even a pre-packaged superhero can use some villains.

"Buddy needed some counterpoint—a bad to his good," White says. Enter Curry and two fellow "villains," Super Greg and Roy. "These characters needed to be the opposite of Buddy Lee—arrogant, aggressive, or just unreliable," says Fallon copywriter Linus Karlsson, who claims he spent only 55 minutes writing the villains' home pages in a London hotel room.

"This is my home site for all home boys and home chicks... If U have a problem with it or think U can do it better, it's your problem (not mine)."

Super Greg

In July 2000, Fallon released the unbranded villain home pages and began circulating shortunbranded film clips on the Web. Meanwhile, Fallon plastered "wild postings" of the villains throughout college towns like Austin, Texas, among rock concert placards. By the time the commercials arrived to connect Curry, Roy, and Supergreg to Lee jeans, the teenage boy targets were familiar with Buddy Lee's new nemeses.

"The campaign contains several different steps in several different media, all working together," says Malmstrom. At the heart of Fallon's idea for the project are new ways of getting customers to interact with the site. After boys catch the commercial and surf to Buddylee.com as instructed, they are rewarded with three video games featuring the villains, which can be further enhanced using a code found only on the tag of a pair of Lee dungarees. "You'll find that ad agencies will conceive of a campaign that starts with advertising, and then find a way to extend that idea to the Web. That's an old way of doing things," says White.

Fallon says that the video games increase stickiness at Buddylee.com to an average of 12 minutes; and the villain sites have an impressive 25 percent pass-along rate—the best on record for RadicalMail, the Internet marketing firm that began the mass e-mail for Fallon.

But do video games and e-mail sell jeans? According to Lee, sales have doubled over the past 18 months, and Lee's juniors carpenter pants are now the top-selling blue jeans in the stores where they are carried. "No one is going to be able to launch a campaign from now on without the Net being a vital part of the launch," says Malmstrom. "Hopefully we have set that precedent."