On the fifth day of the AIDS Life Cycle fundrasing bike ride, the team known as "Wolfpack" gets ready to snap a quick picture for their combined total of 300,000 Instagram followers. The group gives the camera the sexiest look they can muster at 7 a.m., after having ridden more than 400 miles in the previous four days.
Of the 224 teams on the ride this year, none have garnered as much attention or raised more money per rider as this gang of Instagram studs. The Wolfpack, all of whom look like they've stepped right out of a GQ photo spread, have managed to masterfully manipulate the power of social media with the ease and agility of a balloon-animal maker at a children's birthday party.
In the last few months, Team Wolfpack has become something of a gay obsession, after their racy pictures flooded every Instagram feed from West Hollywood to Chelsea. They describe the photos as "artsy," though some are so revealing they would make Anthony Weiner blush. (One member has had his account deleted twice by the Instagram-powers-that-be for being too provocative.)
The AIDS Life Cycle, a grueling 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, is the country's largest AIDS fundraiser. More than 2,500 riders take part in the event, which brings in $15 million to help those living with HIV/AIDS. Riders are required to raise a minimum of $3,000 just to participate.
Wolfpack, a ten-member team, has managed to bring in $160,000, making it the number one moneymaking team per capita in this year's ride. (Some larger teams have raised more total.)
While most riders have relied on Facebook and, to some extent, Twitter for their fundraising, the Wolfpack took to Instagram to get people's attention, something that's never been done before in the ride's history.
"We've really never seen anything like it," said Ryan McKeel, director of marketing and communications for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, one of the co-producers and beneficiaries of AIDS Life Cycle. "Their social media savvy is a game-changer." McKeel says the group has opened his eyes to the untapped potential of Instagram as a fundraising tool. "We'll be looking closely at how other participants can leverage this platform in the future."
They team says they stumbled on the idea by chance. Like many of their younger counterparts, most of their social media interaction these days is not on Facebook. Many of them don't even have a Twitter account. The vast majority of their followers are on Instagram. They started posting pictures because it was the easiest way to get noticed. Gay men took notice, leaving comments and sending money for the cause.
"We promised anyone who donated $100 within 24 hours a shout-out on Instagram," said Levi Foster, team captain and founder of Wolfpack. "We raised more than $7,000 that day alone."
The team also held fundraising parties in both Los Angeles and New York City, again all organized through Instagram. And just to be sure they got people to check it out, the group posed for a sexy shirtless pic by a professional photographer that would give Playgirl a run for its money.
"Wolfpack is the perfect example of how powerful branding can be," said Chad Kawalec, a marketing expert and founder of The Brand Identity Center. "They're very deliberately using the oldest branding principle in the world: sex sells. And on some level, they are allowing gay men to look at their nearly naked bodies without any guilt because it's for a good cause. Even the name is not inconsequential. Associations with a pack of wolves brings to mind a testosterone-filled, determined group that will get what it came for -- don't bother fighting it, just give in. In this case, that means donate!"
"Before, Instagram was a hobby," said team member Ryan Fortwendel. "Now it has a purpose."
They discovered the more pictures they posted, the more money people donated.
"You start to feel like you know someone personally," said Luke Austin, "especially after seeing 500 pictures of them." Austin knows what he's talking about. A professional photographer, he was so taken with one of the Wolfpack members that he reached out to him on Instagram. The two began dating and eventually got married. Now Austin is himself has joined the Wolfpack.
Although the group has had great success with their Instagram photos, some in the gay community have criticized them for being too focused on looks.
"Their egos are as big as their beards," said a competing team captain who preferred to remain anonymous. "They're all hot but they're not the friendliest team on the ride. But they do raise a lot of money and they're great for external visibility for AIDS Life Cycle."
Asked whether it's true that you can only become a member if you have six-pack abs and at least 20,000 followers on Instagram, the team said no. "We accepted Yucel, didn't we?" said Kyle Krieger, pointing to the newest member of the team, Yucel Yeletekin. The group bursts out laughing at the expense of the new kid, who, coincidentally, looks like an underwear model himself.
They say they get teased constantly for their perceived cockiness. And though, for the most part, they manage to let it roll off their broad shoulders, at times it does get to them.
"Of course it bothers us," said Fortwendel. "But it's hard to argue with the numbers."
They make no excuses for their tactics. They say it's all about raising money for a good cause, whether people believe it or not.
"I was on a date not long ago and the guy kept drilling me about my team and our pictures," said Foster. "He kept teasing me, saying, 'What do you know about anything? You're just a pretty boy who takes pictures of yourself.' I told him those pics have raised over $100,000."
"We've been called the 'Team Tiara,'" laughed Marcus Paglianlonga, another team member from Los Angeles. "But most people have been very supportive. A 60-year-old woman emailed me to tell me her daughter fell in love with us, and since then both of them have been following us. She thanked us for shining a light on HIV and AIDS."
Itay Hod is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.