GW dropout Joel Levinson has dressed up as a penguin to pose with the birds of Antarctica and belted out lyrics declaring his love for glue. He knows what it takes to grab someone’s attention.
That skill, combined with a total lack of inhibition, helped him launch a homemade commercial writing career. The 28-year-old makes a living off of creating popular viral commercials for companies desperate to reach out to their audience in creative ways.
Since he started entering commercial contests in spring 2007, Levinson has won cash and prizes worth more than $200,000 and earned trips to six continents. Most recently, he won a trip to Antarctica from Nature Valley. While there, he made penguins into the stars of a Doritos commercial that may be aired during the Super Bowl, pending final competition decisions.
At GW, Levinson wrote papers on the importance of time travel in a democracy, majored in medieval weaponry and dropped out after two years. Bucking against the system, he came up with his own definition of success, a philosophy he applies to commercial competitions.
“I don’t care about doing a good job,” he said. “I care about winning or not winning.”
One current project – a commercial for a plumbing and electric company – features him singing about the love between a toilet and a light bulb, crooning phrases like “flushed with desire.” Another commercial is about a “body wash for men to wash their junk,” he said.
For his Krazy Glue commercial, which is now a finalist in one contest, he did not shower before he started dancing for the camera, explaining, “I just threw on overalls and started jumping around like an idiot.”
Levinson left his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, in 1999 to attend GW. For each of his four semesters in Foggy Bottom, he picked a new major, switching from medieval weaponry – a self-made major – to medieval history to existential philosophy to American studies. He said his most useful courses were human sexuality, philosophy in film and creative writing.
And Levinson did not bottle up his creativity in his fiction courses. One sociology professor asked the class to write a paper on the responsibility of citizens in a democracy. Levinson wrote his paper on time travel, and to his surprise, earned an A. Other serious papers he turned into comedy were not as well received.
“As long as you do not care too much about the grade, then it gives you a lot of creative license,” he said.
After dropping out of GW, he enrolled in two more colleges, including one online, but never received a diploma. Then he bounced from job to job, trying out about 40 professions, including the graveyard shift at a 24-hour fitness club and leading song groups at Jewish camps.
Levinson currently performs stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. He dreams of one day writing for a television show, but for now, he supports himself through his 30-second ads. He loves it when his family, friends and even strangers root for him and live vicariously through him.
“I am driven entirely by the need to be at the center of attention,” he said in a deadpan manner.
Levinson has no problem with shameless self-promotion. Many of the commercial contest winners are determined by popular vote. So Levinson calls up customer service representatives at airlines and bartenders who he has never met and asks them to vote for his online videos. Readers should visit happyjoel.com, he said, to vote on his latest commercials.
“I will be so annoying because I won’t have a sentence that doesn’t include ‘vote for me,’ ” he said, referring to what he will do if he becomes a Doritos commercial finalist.
Nadeev Beyer, a childhood friend, is one of Levinson’s biggest supporters. Beyer goes with his friend to local colleges to encourage students sitting in the computer labs to vote for the commercials. This fall, he was Levinson’s guest on his trip to Antarctica.
Levinson, he said, “has definitely returned the favor.”
View Levinson’s videos on YouTube.