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Illustrations by Liz Lian

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An Anthropological Approach to Branded Content

This is part of a larger series called the Vox Creative Grad Guide.

Gelato traces its roots all the way back to winters in Ancient Rome, when fruit would fall from trees into the snow. Romans would squeeze lemon juice over the syrupy snow and eat it as a frozen treat. Eventually, they would pack this snow and ice under hay and bring it down from the mountains to cellars in Rome — a refrigeration system of sorts. It’s not clear where exactly in Italy gelato as we know it today came from, but by the 1860s, ice cream machines imported from the United States made large-scale gelato production possible. Now, Italian gelato is known and beloved by people around the world.

All this I learned from Nazzareno Giolitti, the fourth-generation owner of Giolitti, the longest-running family-owned gelateria in Rome. We were sitting around a small round table on the tourist-filled cobblestone street outside his restaurant, a translator between us and a group of nuns chatting and eating their ice cream cones happily nearby. It was in that moment that I realized that I was putting into practice exactly what I had learned from my anthropology classes in college at work — and how grateful I was to be able to do so.

What you learn in school shows up in unexpected ways.

I didn’t expect to end up applying what I had learned in school into such direct use at my job. I’m a writer at Vox Creative, where I research, write, and story produce branded content videos in partnership with advertisers that run across Vox Media’s eight networks.

In Rome, we were shooting a video about the traditional and modern sides of Roman cuisine for a hotel rewards card advertiser. We visited the proprietors of historical and new bakeries, restaurants, food stands, and gelaterias, and asked them about their stories and the processes behind their foods. In anthropology, you learn how to write an ethnography — a study of a particular society or culture based on interviews and participant observation, or immersing yourself in a culture and trying to understand it from the “inside.” Anthropology teaches you to listen, to ask questions, and to try to understand.

I graduated from Princeton in May of 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a certificate in humanistic studies, and no idea what I was going to do with my life — except that I wanted to be creative. I didn’t know what branded content was when I was in college, much less did I expect to be making it as my job. Most of my peers went on to consulting, finance, tech, or academia. The first two years out of college were challenging. I had graduated with high expectations and hopes, but little confidence in what was the right first step to take in achieving them.

Don’t wait for someone to hire you to do what you want to do.

There is no one clear path to any career, especially writing. I once heard someone say that you become a “writer” as soon as you, well, start writing. Don’t wait for someone to hire you to do it. In fact, the best way to get someone to hire you to write is to already have clips of your writing to show. I’ve written articles about tech for a startup, humor pieces for a satire website, and essays and lists for a food website. I got the food writing gig through a silly list about Pokémon Go that I posted on Medium. I’ve also written my fair share of unanswered pitches. We live in a time where, for better or worse, the internet has made it so that you never know who will end up seeing what you put out there. But if you have the time, resources, and discipline to start writing, making videos, taking photographs, or whatever it is you ultimately want to be doing — even if you don’t think it’s good enough yet — just start doing it.

Pursuing a creative career requires risk.

That said, from what I’ve seen in my few years working in media, pursuing a career in the arts and entertainment is a privilege that requires a leap of faith — and a safety net. My first job out of college was a full-time marketing fellowship at a business news startup that paid $25,000 per year. In addition to writing, I also tutored and even tried secret shopping on the side. I went home to New Jersey on weekends to avoid spending money on going out and to do my laundry and eat for free.

Not everyone has the option to fall back on their parents’ health insurance plan and financial (and emotional) support. And a lot of jobs in the arts or production are freelance or permalance, meaning that you’re paid by the day or by project and aren’t entitled to full-time employment benefits such as healthcare, retirement plans, or paid leave. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. And a lot of the time, work comes through people you know. The reality of these creative paths limits the socioeconomic demographics of the people who are able to pursue them, which, in turn, can influence the type of content they create.

Diversity of viewpoints is crucial in creative fields.

Just as anthropologists bring their own inherent, if unconscious, cultural biases to the situation they observe, so too do writers, directors, producers, and creators of all sorts. At their worst, these biases can result in tone-deaf or offensive content. But biases can also manifest themselves in more subtle ways — in the demographics of the talent that appear on screen, the questions asked in an interview, the stories that are chosen to be told. Anthropology is not perfect. The field has its own flawed history of centuries of imperialist and colonialist modes of inquiry that have led to lasting ramifications on the communities affected by this research. But its current emphasis on constantly interrogating inherent bias, questioning what is considered the “norm,” and open-minded inquiry into cultures outside of one’s own can and should be applied to the creative process behind any type of content – branded or not. It’s why I’m proud to apply my own knowledge and experience to the content we create at Vox Creative.

by Liz Lian, 2015 graduate