Natural Light illustrates college debt crisis with art installation valued at $470M

Dive Brief:

  • Natural Light is visualizing the U.S. college debt crisis through what it has billed the “most expensive piece of art in the world,” according to details emailed to Marketing Dive.
  • Located in the Vanderbilt Hall of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, the “Da Vinci of Debt” installation is made up of 2,600 authentic diplomas provided by graduating college students. Natural Light calculated the average total cost of a four-year college education based on Student Loan Hero data to value the piece at $470 million, a figure besting Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” the painting that commanded the steepest price tag ever for a piece of art sold at auction when it was bought for $450 million in 2017.
  • The beer brand owned by Anheuser-Busch partnered with Snapchat to recreate the “Da Vinci of Debt” experience in augmented reality (AR) through a custom lens. As student loan forgiveness continues to be a hot political topic, Natural Light’s ambitious riff on the high art world could resonate more with cash-crunched consumers.

Dive Insight:

Targeting a younger crowd of drinkers, Natural Light has made college debt relief an increasingly central part of its marketing strategy. The brand launched an annual College Debt Relief program in 2018, doling out $1 million to students under financial pressure. Now, the “Da Vinci of Debt” represents the marketer’s most ambitious iteration of the concept yet, blending experiential and virtual elements at a time when student loan forgiveness is in the political spotlight.

Natural Light is also poking fun at the high art world with a towering exhibit in Grand Central Terminal that opened today and will run through Saturday. In a press release, the brand referenced Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian,” a single banana duct-taped to a wall that sold for $120,000 at the Art Basel in 2019, setting off a contentious discourse in the world of art dealing.

“The art world is filled with absurd price tags that most people find impossible to justify,” Daniel Blake, vice president of value brands at Anheuser-Busch, said in a statement. “That’s what made it the perfect medium for this campaign. It’s a very fitting analogy for the outrageous cost of attending a typical four-year college.”

Natural Light last February enacted a “highly classified plan” to pay people $100 via Cash App to rent their diplomas, and the “Da Vinci of Debt” stands as the culmination of that work. The decision to unveil the piece in Grand Central Terminal could limit exposure to consumers, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to decimate foot traffic to travel hubs. However, the transit station has recently welcomed new art into its halls, including a giant glass sculpture by contemporary artist Jim Hodges, per Untapped New York.

Natural Light is also trying to cover its bases through a Snapchat partnership that lets people over the age of 21 to recreate the “Da Vinci of Debt” from the comfort of their homes via AR. Users can tap on aspects of the virtual exhibit to learn more about the college debt crisis and Natural Light’s efforts to alleviate debt.

The beer brand is entering the fourth year of a decade-long plan to put $10 million toward college debt relief, as college debt is expected to reach a record high of $1.7 trillion this year, according to Federal Reserve data cited by Natural Light. President-elect Joe Biden recently pushed for Congress to immediately cancel the first $10,000 in student loan debt for borrowers, another signal that the incoming administration may prioritize the issue.

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