Castle Capitalism

Castle Capitalism

Is Castle Street the new Times Square?

It’s no secret that university students are short on money. Between tuition fees, the rising cost of living, and an academic workload that makes part-time work sparse, students are under a lot of financial pressure. But thanks to social media and consumer culture, a new 21st century job has emerged: student ambassador. Nowadays, students are an Instagram DM away from being paid to promote local festivals, hand out free stuff for radio stations, and simply party. 

Working closely with various companies such as tertiary education providers, media outlets, festivals, alcohol brands, and furniture brands, the job of a student ambassador is to sell products to their peers. If you sleep on a Flatpack Company mattress, drink Nitro, or nabbed a Baseline ticket off a breatha’s Instagram story, you’ve been influenced. 

These marketing tactics utilise the student demographic living in Dunedin to promote the latest RTD,  discount code or music gig. In return, student ambassadors are given money, free entry to events and/or free products. 

Being a student ambassador is an easy way to earn a quick buck (or avoid spending what bucks you have left after rent). But can everyone be an ambassador? Or is the job reserved for a select ‘type’ of student? Is this marketing tactic hurting Dunedin culture or enhancing the student experience? Does covertly selling products to peers complicate student relationships? And finally, is all of it legal? Critic Te Ārohi investigates the phenomenon we’ve dubbed ‘Castle Capitalism’. 

Besties or Business? 

Castle Capitalism starts early at modern day Otago Uni. Freshers' capacity to influence their peers in halls of residences make them optimal ambassadors for The Flatpack Company, despite having no experience with flatting (bless their panel heaters and catered food). Flatpack beds are a popular choice for new flatters. The convenience of delivery on move-in day makes them a stand-out option over that 45-year-old South Dunedin man selling a mattress on Facebook marketplace. 

Flatpack’s service is especially compelling in the midst of flat-panic, an annual epidemic where freshers must choose which friends will be promoted to flatmates and attempt to convince landlords of their “studious” credentials. Perhaps it’s Flatpack’s “admin-free” service or “affordable” costs that explain the company's chokehold over freshers, or perhaps it’s the effectiveness of their ambassador marketing.  

We all know that one person in the hall who spammed the floor groupchat with Flatpack codes and slid pamphlets under your door (get your bag, girl). While to Critic’s knowledge these ‘influencing’ methods are still being used by Flatpack ambassadors, their tactics have become more overt in recent years. One source tells Critic they saw an ambassador bring mattresses onto Union Lawn where lines of students were invited to lay on them before being handed free RedBull (not a bad deal after that soul-sucking 8am). 

Otago business graduate and Flatpack co-founder Angus Syme tells Critic that the company receives “hundreds of applications each year” from freshers vying to become the Tarayummy of mattresses. Only a select few (“around 20”) are selected to carry out “a really important part” of Flatpack’s marketing strategy. 

Third-year Christy* recalls a “charming” neighbour she had at her hall who’d “constantly” stop her in the hallway to talk about Flatpack mattresses and slip discount codes under her door. “I thought it was really weird she was so obsessed with mattresses. I remember telling my mate she’d make a great salesperson,” Christy laughs. “Well, that makes more sense in retrospect.” 

While advertising on Instagram now requires #ad, word of mouth doesn’t. Looking back, Christy finds it “strange” that most of their conversations were actually part of a marketing strategy: “She never disclosed that she was an ambassador, at least not that I can remember.”

Flatpack ambassadors have made the company popular with the student dollar. Third-year Hanna tells Critic she “didn't even know there were other alternatives to Flatpack,” saying she was “heavily influenced” by the student ambassadors in her hall. 

Hanna is critical of the impact of student ambassador marketing, deriding the “scare tactics” Flatpack reportedly uses when promoting their beds and delivery service; including pushing their prices up throughout the year to nab panicked purchases. “It particularly got [to] me,” Hanna says, describing how she scrambled to buy a bed despite not even having signed a flat yet. 

While Hanna’s flatmates tell Critic they weren’t influenced to the same degree, they call student ambassadors “a little scammy [...] They’re hyping it up on social media, doing scare tactics, giving away RedBull, acting all buddy buddy but in reality they’re actually just profiting off [their peers].” 

Ambassador A-Listers

The Flatpack Co. is far from the only company to employ student ambassadors. Like Flatpack, Baseline Festival was cooked up by two Otago business graduates Hamish Todd and Angus Tylee. Seven years later, Baseline has become Dunedin’s “premier musical festival,” bringing in thousands of punters to experience the best of Drum ‘n Bass. Otago tertiary students make up the majority of attendees at Baseline, whose marketing involves recruiting student ambassadors. 

Marketing lead Jasper Shand told Critic that student ambassadors are “extremely important” for the festival’s success. “We look for their support to share our content and encourage them to share their own ideas.” So whose ideas get to be heard? Co-founder Hamish says that the process of ambassador recruitment starts on good ol’ Instagram stories. “We only advertise our ambassador programme with a couple Instagram stories, the idea being that the algorithm will make sure our true ambassadors see it.” 

What constitutes a “true” ambassador (of which there are only 25) appears to be a mix of genuine appreciation for electronic music and, well, popularity. Critic was shown the groupchat of ambassadors, who tended to have two things in common: thousands of followers and a flat on Castle or its adjacent party streets. 

Third-year Dom was one of the few selected to be a Baseline ambassador, having done it for the last three years. Although Dom (a DnB enthusiast who lived on Leith Street) is the perfect fit to promote Baseline, he tells Critic he’d rather pass the torch than do student ambassador work again.  

“Other than the free ticket, you don't really gain anything else apart from the few that maybe got a free hoodie,” Dom says. He feels there should “definitely be better incentives to make you actually want to promote the festival, as leading up to the date [...] I noticed that most ambassadors weren't really posting much apart from the very odd story, including myself.” 

“Please sir, I want some booze” 

So why do students engage in Castle Capitalism? Not everyone thinks the treats are worth the mahi, but the pros are obvious: flexible income, free tickets, and – perhaps more controversially – free alcohol. North Dunedin’s affinity for booze is unrivalled. Alcohol companies take advantage of this market of infamous partiers (or “problem drinkers” if those texts from Student Health are anything to go by). Earlier this year, The Dairy – a now-derelict Castle Street flat – was given a fresh coat of paint as an advertising billboard for the RTD Kirin Hyoketsu, making the connection between Studentville and sponsorships hard to miss. Critic Te Ārohi took to Castle Street to further investigate the relationship between alcohol companies and North D’s most notorious student flats. 

Jackson from the Dog Box flat tells Critic his flatmates “hustled” a sponsorship with Greenhill Seltzers through Instagram DMs, and were dropped off boxes during O-Week, as well as a big tapestry flag, phone accessories, branded hoodies, and dressing gowns (Jackson complains his was the wrong size). “The girls have also got a TikTok going now,” he says. Jackson tells Critic that if Dog Box’s account reached a certain number of followers and views, Greenhill Seltzers would award the flat vouchers “for piss.” 

“Anyone that lives on Castle is trying to hustle something and [uses] this street as a bit of leverage. I guess [residents have] built up [its] reputation over years and that works for the companies and stuff. You might as well use it to your advantage,” Jackson says. 

Flat sponsorships with alcohol brands have been a facet of life on Castle Street for years. Critic understands these sponsorships are typically initiated by residents reaching out to companies over social media (a trick handed down from generations of tenants). But this isn’t always the case. 

The Deathstar flat’s infamous breathaism makes them an obvious choice for alcohol companies to sponsor, including Greenhill Seltzers. Deathstar residents Jack and Fergus tell Critic that, unlike their neighbour Dog Box, Greenhill was the one to hit Deathstar up ahead of their O-Week host. In exchange for wearing branded clothing, putting up a “big inflatable” ad in their living room, and “word of mouth” marketing, Deathstar was promised free boxes. However, the flat tells Critic the arrangement fell through after a visit from Police following the Fridgette fiasco. 

In February, the Fridgette flat made national headlines for their gone-awry sponsorship with Bee Alcoholic Lemonade. Resident Stella tells Critic the flat DMed multiple alcohol companies ahead of their wedding themed Flo-Week host. “Heaps replied [...] some big ones. But we wanted to go with someone more New Zealand,” and so the girls were dropped off 280 1.25 litre bottles of Bee by “some dude in a van.” 

Stella tells Critic they were instructed to put up a light-up branded sign and hand out the drink “ice-cold” at the street host. However, patrolling Police caught wind of the “illegal” arrangement. “We brought all the drinks inside [...] Police came around the next day and talked to us more about it [...] then [another] guy came and talked to us about [alcohol harm].” Both parties were at fault, but while the girls were in trouble for breaching the University Student Code of Conduct, Bee was in more serious trouble for breaching the law. Stella says that the “Bee dude” gave the flat a call following the incident: “He was quite upset I think.” 

The Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act prohibits the “irresponsible promotion of alcohol,” stating it's an offence to promote or advertise alcohol “that is free of charge” or do “anything that encourages people, or is likely to encourage people, to consume alcohol to an excessive extent.” 

While the sponsorship went south, Stella believes the media made a bigger fuss than the situation deserved: “It was a bit overdramatic. I guess there's a bad side to it, like promoting drinking culture [...] but we just thought we were being harmless. Which we were in the end. No drinks were given out.” Fridgette kept all the drinks, and has yet to get through their supply. “Not everyone likes the Bee taste,” laughs Stella. Two months after the fact, Bee stays catching strays. 

While Stella insists the entire ordeal was “really chill,” many flats Critic spoke to, including Deathstar, say the scandal has “scared off” alcohol companies – dampening the street’s ability to nab sponsorships. “[Police] came and talked to us and said we can’t give out any free piss,” say Jack and Fergus. The boys claim while the Police did not explicitly say it was okay to accept free alcohol for personal consumption, it wasn’t specifically prohibited in the conversation either.

Is It Legal?

Critic Te Ārohi set out to uncover whether these sponsorships are legal or illegal, beginning with contacting New Zealand Police. While Police were “unable to comment on the legality of specific instances without further investigation,” they revealed they have “instigated proceedings” against an unspecified licensee for “breaching the law following an incident in February” where free alcohol was provided to a flat party; emphasising they “do not endorse this behaviour.” 

Commenting to Critic on the topic of RTD marketing to students last year, Alcohol Harm Prevention officer Sergeant Stephen Jones told Critic that Castle Street is one of the most high risk and vulnerable communities for alcohol harm in New Zealand: ”Previously, some alcohol manufacturers and suppliers have attempted to exploit this community by providing sponsorship through money, product, and advertising. They have done this in order to promote their brands, focusing specifically on periods when this community is at its most vulnerable,” referring to Flo/O-Week and the Hyde Street Party.

In a comment to Critic, Greenhill Seltzers acknowledged they’ve “dealt with a few student flats in Dunedin,'' claiming that their general rule is to offer merch rather than drinks. “We're careful to avoid directly offering alcohol to flats so as not to promote binge drinking.” Greenhill says in the cases of Deathstar and Dog Box, the company “gifted some of our product as a thank-you for their efforts and engagement.”

While everyone loves a free t-shirt, residents aren’t exactly DMing these brands to do free-promotion. Castle Street flats have allegedly received “thank-you gifts” of alcohol from Jägermeister, Better Beer, Clean Collective, Nitro, Cheeky, Flame, H2yo, and more over the last three years alone.

Greenhill Seltzer confirmed to Critic that they checked both flat’s IDs (a claim corroborated by the residents). To our understanding, however, this isn’t always the case – at least pre-Bee drama. Former Castlers that Critic spoke to laughed off the notion they were made to show IDs by alcohol companies with emphatic “no”s. 

Liz Gordon, a lawyer for Communities Against Alcohol Harm, tells Critic that while there is “significant regulation of licences” (i.e Leith Liquor), there is “virtually none at all” for alcohol companies themselves. “Big Alcohol has completely freed itself from regulation [...] it is free to promote alcohol in the streets and in the places where students like to live and drink. In Studentville, all of these competitive and market pressures play out in everyday life.” 

Jackson from Dog Box reckons “it’s pretty loose how [alcohol] just kind of gets given out willy-nilly. I understand why the police aren’t happy. But the culture is already built here [on Castle Street] so it's not really changing anything [...] people are gonna be [binge] drinking regardless.” 

Liz, however, disagrees that these sponsorships have had no impact on the culture. What seems like a “promotion-enhanced choice by students of what to drink” is, according to Liz, “the determination of where the valuable alcohol dollar will flow and who will profit [...] This kind of promotion work pays off big dividends. Alcohol is an addictive substance and creating a lifelong dependence, whether physical, psychological or social, maintains the market for the next generation.” 

Lake House Gets a Makeover

While Castle Capitalism is most prevalent on this infamous street, the phenomenon extends throughout Studentville. Lake House, hidden behind Logan Park over a kilometre away from Castle Street, remains one of Dunedin's biggest party flats, earning its reputation from their notorious annual St Paddy's Day host. The Lake House host was once an organic mega-party at the heart of student culture; a time where green-donned students could run feral (with smashed windows, climbing roofs, and couch fires all par for the course). However, in recent years, the host has attracted the attention of RTD brands and nightclubs who’ve transformed the once-grassroots piss up into a marketing hotspot. 

This year, Lake House made news for their partnership with Catacombs Nightclub. The partnership would help to “promote a safe drinking environment” as told to the Otago Daily Times. Lake House tenant Alex, tells Critic that the partnership came about from being contacted by “one of the bros” who does the nightclub’s PR. “They wanted to take a more of a responsible drinking angle,” he says. “[We were] helping them look a bit better.” 

While Catacombs’ branded water bottles and port-a-loos made local news, their supply of alcohol to the Lake House residents didn’t. Alex tells Critic that the boys were given ten bottles of Fireball whiskey and three 24 boxes of Speights in total from Catacombs. But there was a catch — Alex claims that the “more work you did, the more drinks you would get.” This resulted in the Lake House residents earning differing amounts of alcohol from the nightclub. “If you did heaps of work, you'd get Fireball, but if you didn't do much, you’d just get the Speights.” In North Dunedin’s economy, it seems alcohol is the new NZD. 

Despite the influx of alcohol marketing from student flats, Alex reckons these sponsorships shouldn’t be held responsible for promoting North Dunedin’s binge-drinking culture; claiming it’s a matter of personal responsibility. “[Students] are gonna drink anyways, it just depends on how they [choose to] go about it.” 

However, as a liquor licensee, Catacombs is held to a higher standard than ‘Big Alcohol’. In Liz Gordon’s opinion, Catacombs may have breached the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act on multiple grounds relating to the discounting and promotion of alcohol, acting off-licence (providing alcohol outside of their premises), and acting “unsuitably” to the object of the Act. Liz explains that during Catacombs’ liquor licence renewal process, the owners may be judged unsuitable to hold a licence in light of this information, which would see the nightclub potentially meeting the same fate as Eleven Bar last year.

“The promo of the nightclub with water bottles is not a problem. A gift of large amounts of alcohol by a licensed premises to the flat for doing promo work is definitely of concern.” Catacombs did not respond to Critic Te Ārohi’s request for comment in time for print. 

Dunedin’s New Culture: Parties or Profit? 

Lake House was reported to have spent around $2.9k on this year's St Paddy's Day host, including hiring a brand new sound system and security for the flat. It was a massive cost for a flat party in Dunedin which, with the help of sponsorships, increasingly involved PR strategies and high-maintenance planning.

Long gone are the parties with a shitty JBL and some breatha on DDJ-400 decks, it seems. Third-year Harrison* tells Critic that while he feels it’s natural for the scene to be evolving, he’s “nostalgic” for the days before there was corporate interest in student partying. ”It’s only a matter of time before these street hisses start getting ticketed. We’ve seen it with Hyde Street. I get it was a safety thing and OUSA does an awesome job, but all it takes is some company with the wrong intentions and then we’ll be cooked. The whole thing is kinda predatory.” 

However, Deathstar resident Jack rejects the notion that Castle Capitalism is bad for students, telling Critic “it’s not anything too deep [...] The news had a skitz about, like, vulnerable youth. But I don't actually think the marketing does anything. People are gonna buy what they like [regardless]. Seeing posters on flats like Deathstar and Thirsty [advertising] Baseline isn't actually gonna make anyone go. Like, people will go if they want to, or not.” Flatmate Fergus added he thinks that “it’s kinda cool there’s companies reaching out. I don't think it's actually doing any net negative.”

Second-year Sam reckons student life in Dunedin has “definitely” changed for the worse: “These companies drain the life out of [partying]. Telling students what to do, how to be, how to act. They’re glamourising [student] culture, making it seem like [these] parties are spontaneous, but it’s not. There’s so much organisation and effort that goes into them now.” Sam predicts that Dunedin student culture will eventually meet the same commercialised fate other subcultures have fallen victim to. “It’s like what happened to the hippie culture in the ‘60s. They found a way to label it, put a price tag on it, commercialise and monopolise.” 

While breathas are a dime a dozen around campus, Sam fears a corporate takeover of Studentville could result in a “homogenised” image of all Dunedin students as Castle breathas. “There’s way more variants of students than that,” says Sam, who gave “St Clair and Kilda surf bros”, “Glassons girlies,” “indie Radio One volunteers” and “law school wankers” honourable mentions.

Whether Castle Capitalism is harmful or harmless is up for debate. The intersection of student culture and corporate marketing remains a moral and legal grey area. Student ambassadors walk a fine line between making an easy profit and having to commodify themselves, their social life, and their university experience. Depending on who you ask, Castle Capitalism is either a simple trick to spare the $25 on a box or the beginning of a Bezos-level takeover of Studentville. While we can’t say what the consequences of Castle Capitalism will be, we can say: if your laptop has a Critic sticker on it, thanks for doing our influencing for us.

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2024.
Posted 10:24pm Friday 26th April 2024 by Angus Rees and Iris Hehir.