I was lucky enough to graduate college without student debt. I didn’t really think about it much then, but now, as I plan for my two kids to go to college, I am grateful my parents made it possible for me and want to do the same for my kids. The harsh reality is that the national student debt is a whopping $1Trillion and climbing and affects almost 15 million people under the age of 30. Sending two kids to a private college 4-year college will cost me about $500,000, give or take and require lots of trade-offs, including retiring and having a life. For most kids today, the consistent rise in tuition costs is forcing them into the ongoing pain and horror of student loans and ongoing debt. Not a pretty picture.

So, what’s a kid to do? American Student Assistance (ASA), a Boston nonprofit, has created SALT, a free, student debt management resource that helps students take control of their loans and their debt. Think of it as a path to relief for student burdened with college loans. Tho, getting students to pay attention to the topic of paying off their loans is no easy feat. What kid has the extra money laying around to do it? It can feel easier to just ignore it and maybe it will go away. ASA knows that these are the realities for people dealing with student loans and decided to change up how they were going to grab the attention of this growing audience.

Instead of creating just a Facebook page or a new social media campaign, ASA decided to go psycho. Psycho thriller, to be exact. Sue Burton, Managing Director of SALT Consumer Marketing and Product Development and long-time friend and colleague, connected with her audience through the medium kids love: film. Not just another YouTube or College Humor video, but a real short film directed by Sundance-award winners, Borderline Films. Titled The Red, this 8-minute film acknowledges the anxiety many young people feel when faced with the massive burden of student loans, and shows how SALT.org, the free student debt resource created by ASA, can provide a path to relief. There was a creative teaser campaign leading up to last week’s premiere, which was revealed and sold out in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Tampa and Washington, DC. SS+K, the NY agency that created the film and the broader awareness campaign, was smart enough to bundle The Red viewing with a free viewing of Iron Man 3…on opening night. Up until the premiere, The Red was promoted as just a film, and the big student debt connection was made for the first time at the premier at the Lowes Boston Common. I was lucky enough to be Sue’s distinguished red carpet guest and here’s what she told me:

“There’s no lack of financial information in the world. It doesn’t motivate students because it’s dry and fact-based. Money — and debt in particular — is emotional. We interviewed students all over the country and saw that they were emotionally paralyzed by their debt and craving relief.

We made a movie to connect with that emotional journey and to inspire positive action on a personal basis. We wanted to be remarkable — to stand out and provoke a conversation. The media reports on the student loan problem as one big number ($1Trillion) . It’s really millions of individual stories. Yes, we need to change college financing at a policy level, but today we can create meaningful change by facing our own red – one student at at time. SALT provides students with the relief they need by helping them borrow less, borrow smart, and repay well.”

The film is directed by Borderline Films trio, Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond, who recently won the Dramatic Feature Directing Award at Sundance for their thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. The film is surrounded by an integrated media plan along with a $10,000 cash sweepstake and other great prizes. The stage is now set for the brand to spread awareness and the real proof will be converting the awareness to sign-ups. For smaller brands and budgets, hiring a Sundance film crew and fancy NY agency is most likely out of the realm of possibility. But, thinking differently about how to cut through the noise and connect with your audience is how all marketers need to deliver on building brand awareness.

Remember, it’s only a brand once people start talking about it. Get clever and get ’em talking.

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