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Sony Helps Students Hunt Great Lake Shipwrecks

  |  July 18, 2011   |  Comments

Branded content plumbs depths, with help from 180LA and the NOAA.


Five high schoolers from Saginaw, Michigan recently had an experience beyond the reach of most kids in this economically bereft state. They got to hunt shipwrecks, real ones that have rested for more than a century in the deeps of Lake Huron. And as two new web videos and an upcoming Current TV special make clear, they have Sony to thank for the adventure.

"Project Shiphunt" is the brainchild of agency 180LA, which assembled a group of partners with different but compatible motives: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which led the expedition; Michigan's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where the wrecks were found; production company @radical.media; several research partners; and last but not least, sponsors Sony and Intel.

Accompanying the students and researchers were an agency team, production crew and a Sony rep. According to Russ Green, deputy superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the marketing contingent was respectful of the project's science- and education-based mission. And he's fine with brands taking some credit when they assist legitimate research.

"[We understand] how these pieces get spun into ads. We're OK with that," said Green. He added, "It's a great way to get research done, particularly in difficult budget times."

Under the guidance of scientists and local shipwreck hunter Stan Stock, the teens used Sony VAIO laptops and sonar scanners to locate two ships - the schooner M.F. Merrick, which went down in 1889 laden with iron ore, and the freighter Etruri, which sank in 1905. Neither was the ship they were after, but no matter. The students worked with a dive team to photograph and film the wrecks they did find. Along the way they had lessons in marine navigation, sonar scanning, and, um, brand adjacency. But no one appears to have minded that last incongruous bit – mainly because the two wrecks have real historical and archaeological value.

The initiative is a sequel to last year's Rocket Project, in which Sony worked with 180LA and @radical.media to challenge eight kids to build and launch a real rocket into space. It was deemed such a success that agency and client immediately began working on a followup, according to William Gelner, executive creative director at 180LA.

"The biggest thing we learned was the power of the kids. The technology [can provide] a compelling story and can even be dramatic, but it ultimately lacks human emotion," he said.

Involving kids with technology provided the human element, but 180LA had to be careful in its choice of location and project partners. Diving on shipwrecks can be a dangerous proposition, after all. The agency ultimately settled on Lake Huron because its waters are safer than oceans and unexplored shipwrecks more plentiful. According to Gelner, the Lake has more sunken ships per square mile than any other body on the continent. Additionally, the cold, low-oxygen depths of the Great Lakes preserves the wrecks - which makes for better photos and video footage.

The campaign has already received considerable attention in local and national media, and branded programming initiatives will build steam in the coming weeks. A deal with Current TV will result in an hour-long "Project Shiphunt" special that will air on August 30 and be rebroadcast later.

Additionally, Sony and Intel Corp. intend to extend the project's educational aspects by partnering with the NOAA on an educational curriculum for high school science and history teachers.

Embedded below are two online videos documenting the project, which also has an online home at Sony.com/shiphunt.



Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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