YouTube's mission to make marketers more comfortable with its stars is gaining some traction, at least with the Federal Government.
The Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently hired Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln Neal -- better known as Rhett and Link -- to film an anti-texting spot.
But it's not your typical public service announcement. During the three-and-a-half minute spot, the comedic duo take turns rapping about their texting-while-driving prowess while texting and driving … and doing yoga … and delivering a baby (watch it above).
This isn't the first time Rhett and Link have gotten a brand to sign off on a YouTube campaign that's more YouTube-y than the brand's typical campaign. In a 2009 video for Taco Bell, the pair sing their order in one of the restaurant's drive-thrus. And a stop-motion video they created in 2010 starring warring T-shirts led McDonald's and Coca-Cola to adapt the clip for a TV campaign.
"We've been working at this before [YouTube launched its Brand Partner Program last year]," said Mr. McLaughlin. "We wanted to create the kinds of videos we'd been creating and incorporating brands. Now a lot of people are doing it."
More people are doing it because it works. The "I'm a Textpert" video created for NHTSA -- and brokered by YouTube's sales team -- has been watched more than 2.8 million times since it was uploaded on April 7. And it cracked YouTube's list of top-10 ads in April.
Those rankings are based on how many paid and non-paid views they received as well as how much of a video people watched. An ad shot by another YouTube creator, Dude Perfect, also made the list to mark the first time two YouTube creator-produced ads have ranked in the top 10.
YouTube and online video networks like Maker Studios have been actively pushing the brand-creator tie-ups. Last summer YouTube created its Brand Partner Program to school brands on content creation and collaboration. And Maker Studios announced a program to turn its stars into brand spokespeople that has received a vote of confidence from Omnicom. The thinking goes that YouTube stars know how to make videos their audiences want to watch, so videos they create for brands stand a better chance of being watched.
The NHTSA and agency Tennessee-based The Tombras Group are running a more traditional integrated campaign as well. The $8.5 million effort includes TV -- ads featuring teens dying as a result of texting -- social media, sponsored posts on BuzzFeed and a dedicated website tied to Distracted Driving Awareness month last month.
Rhett and Link have come a long way since uploading their first funny videos for local advertisers. Starting out the pair sold ads on their own. They would dig up a potential advertiser's email address and write their own legal documents. "I would sit there and write the agreement; my dad's a law professor," Rhett said. "Those days are over."
Rhett and Link have since joined up with YouTube network Collective Digital Studio. "The challenge at this point is helping a brand understand they're not just commissioning a viral video but tapping into an existing fan base and an audience that's very loyal…. It's two brands working together: the Rhett and Link brand and their brand," said Link.