Indebted students see their face as their fortune

Stephen Beard Mar 29, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: We’ve been talking a bit the past couple of weeks about student debt, about how much of it there is in this economy — more than a trillion dollars in all. And about how hard it can be to pay back, when jobs and salaries just aren’t what they used to be.

Over in the U.K., two debt-laden yet enterprising British graduates have come up with a novel repayment plan, as Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from London.

Stephen Beard: By the time they’d reached their last year at university, Ross Harper and Ed Moyse had clocked up $80,000 worth of student debt between them. They wondered how they would ever pay it off. Then they decided to use their heads.

Phone ringing

Ross Harper: Hello,

And this was the result. The two guys launched a personal advertising service — really personal.

Harper: Companies can literally buy advertising space on our faces. We then paint whatever they’d like: a message or logo onto our faces.

The pair wear the advertisement for a day, at a cost of some $600 to the advertiser.

Beard: Is that the whole face or do you sell parts of a face? A chin, a cheek, a forehead?

Ed Moyse: No, you have to buy both our faces in one go. But you can put different things on different parts of our faces if you like. So you can have a logo on my cheek and then you can write your website on Ross’ forehead.

This is not just billboard advertising in the flesh. Ed and Ross don’t just walk about in public showing off their painted faces.

Harper: The service we’re providing is viral advertising.

They photograph themselves and post their images on their website. Visitors can then click on the image, which takes them through a hyperlink to the advertiser’s website. To ginger up the images, Ed and Ross have been skydiving, skiing, go-karting, and most recently, abseiling.

Abseiling instructor: Just gonna get you clipped in. This is your safety line. So you’re going to walk towards me now.

Here, they abseiled from the ninth floor of the offices of their biggest advertiser and sponsor, the accountancy firm Ernst & Young. Jane Robinson is the company’s head of recruitment marketing.

Jane Robinson: We liked their entrepreneurial spirit, their work ethic, what they’re trying to do, get out there and pay off their debt themselves.

She says Ernst & Young was happy to buy space on the two faces.

But these are students, frisky young men! Isn’t it just a bit risky having wandering about in public bearing your company logo?

Robinson: We have a contract with the students. There are certain behaviors we’re expecting while our logo’s on there.

Beard: They’re not allowed to go drinking with your logo on their faces?

Robinson: Not to excess!

Ed and Ross concede that the face ads may have constrained their social lives a little. A romantic evening isn’t easy when your face is emblazoned with an ad for potato chips. But, Ross says, the pair are already thinking about playing a less conspicuous role in the business.

Harper: We’ve had a lot of emails from people across the world — Hong Kong, Canada, America, all over Europe — from students, graduates and others saying they’d like to sell advertising space on their faces too. So we’re looking within the next two months to launch a franchise.

In the meantime, they have faced down their debt. So far, they’ve paid off more than half their student loans.

In London, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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