Hammer swings through Harvard

Ad lib department
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 4, 2009

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When he was known as MC Hammer, the man born Stanley Burrell famously sold consumers Rick James samples and parachute pants. More recently, he successfully pitched his reality show, Hammertime, to A&E, and in his spare time sells Jesus on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. It may shock some that he was asked to lecture at the Gravity Summit for social-media marketing at Harvard this past Monday, but to his more than 1.3 million Twitter followers, Hammer is a new-school David Ogilvy.

A self-described "serial entrepreneur" who has been in business since his days scalping tickets at the Oakland Coliseum, Hammer was in esteemed company at Harvard. Josh Levine of the Los Angeles–based Rebel Industries described his company's watershed hip-hop marketing campaign for Scion; CNN VP of digital and development marketing Andy Mitchell boasted about his network's user-based news platform (regularly skewered by Jon Stewart).

Still, Hammer's keynote speech was, er, hard to touch.

"With social media, you no longer have to holler at the news," Hammer told the assorted crowd of students, tech hitters, and businesspeople gathered in the Harvard Faculty Club. "With social media, you can change the news."

Hammer walks his talk. Whereas five years ago the Oakland rapper hardly registered on America's secular radar, he re-branded himself as a Web guru seemingly overnight — not only through Facebook and Twitter, but also as a Silicon Valley regular, and with dancejam.com, his dynamic dance video and competition site. One participant jokingly asked if there were any "Hammerisms" for aspiring social-media moguls to consult in pursuit of their Web-market dreams. Hammer said "no," but the crowd definitely found at least one gem to be especially insightful: "Perception trumps reality these days."

The day-long seminar — Webcast live on cnn.com — could have convinced the crustiest of Luddites to update their status. "Twitter is your brand's CNN," said one speaker, who offered the example of how Dell has reportedly done $3 million in sales through Twitter links.

In his turn, Hammer was reluctant to advertise specific brands that he anticipates will make him richer through social networking. But it's clear that he doesn't spend 18 hours per day typing sound bites just for fun; Hammer tweets for the same reason that he does Cash 4 Gold commercials, and that Willie Sutton used to rob banks: that's where the money is. Or at least where it will be.

"Somebody has to buy something eventually," said Hammer, who boldly promised to offer a solution for declining record sales in the next 45 days. "And when they do, I'll be there waiting to sell it to them."

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