Lower Merion High School graduate Jeffrie "Yofray" Ray and friend Arya Toufanian posted their first YouTube video under the I'm Shmacked label in September 2011.
With a stated goal of offering a window into modern college life, the 31/2-minute clip followed Temple University students as they walked around campus, guzzled beer and liquor, and went to a hip-hop show. It has since racked up more than 225,000 views, and I'm Shmacked has morphed into a full-time business for Ray and Toufanian. The pair have produced similar videos at dozens of schools nationwide. Backed by hip-hop and rap music, the videos are heavy with drinking, drugs, and outrageous behavior. To many students and administrators alike, I'm Shmacked - another way of saying "I'm drunk" - is now a household name, a code widely interpreted as a rallying cry to party hard.
Indeed, that's what the West Chester police feared last weekend when they got wind of a planned party being hosted near West Chester University and promoted as an I'm Shmacked event. After police shut down the $15-a-head party at a house on Walnut Street last Saturday, an estimated 500 people poured onto the street and started what officers described as a near-riot. Three people were arrested and several cars were damaged. One was flipped on its side by one group of revelers.
Ray, who graduated from Lower Merion in 2011, did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
Toufanian, 21, declined to comment on the West Chester incident because he was not there, but said he and Ray have long been frustrated by accusations that their videos glorify drinking or encourage rowdy behavior.
"I don't understand why when we document University in America we are promoting the behavior," said Toufanian, in an interview last week via an online chat from the University of Rhode Island. "We are simply filming a weekend at a university, we don't show up with trucks of alcohol and tell our peers what to do. We film what is there and then we leave."
Crowds and critics
So far, the business model has proved profitable. Toufanian, a Maryland native, said the company earns income from its live events, such as parties and concerts, as well as from the sale of merchandise. The I'm Shmacked name has become a platform from which the duo can form partnerships, sponsorships, and explore possible books, TV, and film options.
"It draws a big audience in a very concentrated market of young people," Toufanian said.
The duo drew criticism from the Lower Merion School District last year after a video surfaced that purported to show Lower Merion students drinking and doing drugs. Despite the filmmakers' claims that the video did not depict actual drinking or drug use - a disclaimer that is posted online with each I'm Shmacked video - district officials announced that students could face punishment for their involvement. Ray and Toufanian eventually pulled the video, and have since focused solely on college-age students.
Toufanian rejected any idea that the videos reinforce negative stereotypes of college life, saying that the videos create positive publicity for schools and have even encouraged prospective students to apply.
Amid the students chugging beer, throwing back shots, and smoking from bongs, there are sweeping scenes of university campuses, football games, mascots, dorm rooms, T-shirts, and students boasting of their school spirit.
A video filmed at New York University shows the subway system and features a girl speaking about the school's academic program. When I'm Shmacked went to Pennsylvania State University, one student raved about the sports program, and another said, "We all work hard."
"We try to give a balanced video including the academics, Greek life, athletics," Toufanian said. "But we are catering to a young crowd and we have to keep the video interesting."
The Twitter account for I'm Shmacked suggests that at least some prospective students see the videos as selling points.
"I refuse to go to any school with a bad @ImShmacked video," one woman wrote last week. Another posted, "The fact that @ImShmacked got busted at [West Chester University] makes me realize how strict their cops are. Now I don't want to go to college there. . . ."
Several Philadelphia-area colleges, including West Chester and the University of Pennsylvania, declined to comment on the I'm Shmacked phenomenon. But Eryn Jelesiewicz, a spokeswoman for Temple, said the school saw no positive side to the school's association with the brand.
"Anything that promotes high-risk drinking and other high-risk behaviors goes against everything we do to support students in having a healthy, safe, and fulfilling college career," she said. "We see this as a very serious issue and problem."
Toufanian doesn't necessarily disagree but said heavy drinking was part of college life.
Colleges "don't consider us catalysts in the social issue of underage drinking, or bringing light to it," he said. "We are the problem."