“It’s a pretty unlikely pairing: taxes and reality TV.”
Jill Cress is putting it mildly. And yet the chief marketing and experience officer at H&R Block is describing exactly what one of the oldest brands in tax preparation services is attempting: making a reality TV show.
[Image: courtesy H&R Block]
Or, at least, a digital, short-format spoof of one—called Responsibility Island—which will debut on Roku and YouTube in the heart of tax season, on February 16, and whose (surprisingly very funny) trailer is debuting this week at the Sundance Film Festival. For the first time in history, H&R Block will be showing up at the buzzy, indie film confab and participating in an event where brands will talk about how they’re weaving storytelling into their campaigns.
In keeping with reality TV tropes, the premise of the series—which consists of four three-minute episodes—is this: A group of scantily-clad 20-somethings are dropped off on an idyllic island where, amidst serial vodka shots and hookups, they have to complete a series of challenges. The catch? All the tasks have to do with, as one contestant puts it, “getting a general lesson in growing up.” The final, coup de grace challenge is that they must file their own taxes, the mere notion of which drives several to tears and/or frantic phone calls to their mothers.
If all this sounds a little off-brand for H&R Block, which most people associate with buttoned-down accountants and an annual ritual dreaded by Americans of all income levels, that’s exactly the point. “We need to get people to consider us in a different light,” says Cress, who joined H&R Block in 2022 after stints at PayPal, National Geographic, and MasterCard. “We don’t have an awareness problem, but we have a relevance problem.”
This is particularly true amongst Gen Zers, whom H&R Block sees as a huge, untapped market. “Here’s the thing,” Cress says. “Our total adjustable market is limited. There are 150 to 160 million Americans who file their taxes every year. So getting consumers to choose us early, so that they stick with us is a big opportunity for our long-term growth.”
H&R Block also wants to stress how its services have evolved. Clients no longer need to sit down with an H&R Block professional to go over itemized tax items. They can fill out the forms on an app, which even has an AI functionality.
The company’s quest to woo younger Americans began in earnest last year, when H&R Block increased its spending on TikTok, where more than 13,000 fans follow the company’s cat videos, dance memes, and other jokey GIFS about taxes. But with Responsibility Island, the company is ratcheting things up considerably in terms of production value. The series was written by A-list Hollywood writers Jill Kargman and Lara Spotts, who last partnered on the Bravo comedy Odd Mom Out (which Kargman created and starred in). And the concept for the show was conceived last fall by a trio of TV showrunners—Jeff Astrof, his sister Liz Astrof and David Nickoll—who took the gig while Hollywood was shut down during the writers’ strike.
“When I heard their idea, I just cracked up,” Kargman says. (Daniel Rosenberg, a cofounder of the creative agency Piro, was behind matching H&R Block with all of the writers through a division of the company he launched last year called Piromaniacs, to bring Hollywood talent into the process of creating outside-the-box advertising campaigns.)
Kargman said she was surprised by how much freedom H&R Block had allowed the writers. One of the characters in the series is “a hippie guy who’s a glass blower, let’s just say,” Kargman says. And there’s a scene where someone is rustling under the bed sheets (they’re actually doing their taxes on the H&R Block app).
TikToker Vienna Ayla, who was cast in the series, also felt a lot of creative leeway. “I’m used to writing and creating my own content, so I was thrilled that the team trusted us to bring our own characters to life and flesh them out ourselves. This is not always the case with branded content . . . I appreciated how the team trusted our comedic instincts from the first table read.”
Responsibility Island never directly references H&R Block (which would make it feel too much like an ad)—though there is a jab at rival Turbo Tax—and it is not a scripted show, exactly, but it isn’t unscripted, either. Each episode is crafted to feel like a teaser for an upcoming episode of a fictional reality show about irresponsible young people trying to file taxes. “It’s like ‘Previously on . . .” and ‘Tonight . . .,’: Kargman says. “There’s no quote ‘real’ show behind it, but each three-minute episode has snippets or complete scenes” where viewers follow a set of characters.
“One is a compulsive liar and always had Mommy do the taxes. Every character is very developed, with a back story and the whole thing, explaining how they are flakes who aren’t really dealing with their taxes.” The show, she says, “is about being a an adult.” It’s also a reminder of how much easier the process of filing taxes has become. “It’s all at your fingertips, on an app on your iPhone.”
So will there be a season two of the show?
“We’re going to test and learn,” Cress says. “One of the things you can count on from us is we’re going to push the boundaries.”