Sun, Apr 01, 2012 - Page 11 News List

Students become human billboards to pay off university debts

By Katy Lee  /  AFP, LONDON founders Ross Harper, right, and Ed Moyse pose in London, England, on March 23.

Photo: AFP

In their scruffy jeans and trainers, Ross Harper and Ed Moyse look just like any other British 22-year-olds — except for the words “Buy My Face” and “Sold” emblazoned brightly on their faces.

Standing in the middle of London’s shopping mecca Oxford Circus, the two Cambridge University graduates attract more than a few curious glances from the hoards of passers-by.

“How much?” a young man calls out from a gaggle of Spanish tourists, to which Harper, a former neuroscience student, replies that it’s £100 (US$160) to hire the two faces as advertising space for the day.

“A hundred pounds?” The tourists throw up their hands in mock outrage before bursting into laughter.

There may be no customers here, but others are queuing to hire the two human billboards. Harper and Moyse have made more than £30,000 since setting up Buy My Face in October last year in a bid to pay off their student debts.

The enterprising duo plan to launch the business, which works by directing online traffic to advertisers’ Web sites through their own entertaining site, on the international market next month.

“We’ve had interest from places like Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, the United States and all over Europe,” Harper said.

With record youth unemployment of 22 percent in Britain, and even graduates from prestigious universities such as Cambridge struggling to find work as the economy stalls, theirs is an unusual success story.

“We were coming up with ideas for what we wanted to do after we left university,” economics graduate Moyse said. “And we thought: ‘The job market’s really tough at the moment. Why don’t we try a creative project for a year?’”

The pair, who each borrowed £25,000 from the government to fund their studies, came up with Buy My Face over a pot of instant noodles last year while brainstorming business ideas that required only minimal investment.

“We’re £50,000 in debt — we didn’t want to invest thousands more into a business,” said Moyse, adding that they spent just £100 on face-paint.

Since Oct. 1 last year, he and Harper have managed to “sell” their faces every single day — to large companies such as Irish bookmaker Paddy Power and accountants Ernst & Young, as well as smaller firms.

“On the very first day we sold them for £1,” Moyse recalled, turning to Harper and adding: “Not a very good graduate wage, was it?”

However, as word has spread about the scheme and with Web site traffic now peaking at about 7,000 visits a day, they have been able to command higher rates.

They currently rent their faces for up to £400 a day to advertisers, who can pay for them to complete eye-catching stunts, from skydiving to plunging into icy rivers. And they may raise prices again as their online following grows.

“The idea isn’t about seeing us in the real world,” Moyse said. “It’s about getting good photos and funny videos on our Web site, and that’s seen by thousands of people every day.”

In a world where successful viral advertising campaigns spread rapidly online through social networking Web sites, humor and creativity are crucial, said Patrick Barwise, professor of marketing at the London Business School.

“All you need to do is create something which other people will want to pass on,” he said.

“They’re obviously very enterprising,” he said of Harper and Moyse, “but I’d be surprised if it’s that sustainable. Marketing is enormously faddish.”

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