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The Agency of the Future: Consumers

Robert Moskowitz
The Agency of the Future: Consumers Robert Moskowitz

Once upon a time, it took a professional advertiser to make an advertisement. Now that we have computers and the internet, that's no longer true.

As chronicled in iMedia Connection.com, advertisers have been systematically learning the creative and attention-getting power available from the ranks of their own consumers. By using "Consumer-Generated Advertising" to harness the love of a target audience for a specific brand or product, an advertiser can position itself on the receiving of vast amounts of grass roots creativity, industry buzz, media attention and consumer interest-- all at a bargain price.

Whether you call it Consumer-Generated Media, Consumer-Generated Content, Consumer-Generated Marketing, or Consumer-Generated Advertising (CGA), the idea and the executions have been spreading like … well, like a virus, to the point where millions of consumers have generated or voted on hundreds of hours of product-centric material, most of it unlike anything you could extract from your favorite agency.

Let's examine five executions within this trend and see how things in the world of CGA are going:

Author Notes:
Robert Moskowitz is a consultant and author who speaks and writes frequently in the United States and abroad on such topics as white collar productivity, knowledge management, practical use of the internet, telecommuting, caring for aging parents, and business applications of information technologies. He has authored several books, including "How To Organize Your Work and Your Life," and "Parenting Your Aging Parents," and teaches several online courses.

Recently, Home Depot began spreading a message asking consumers to visit its website and vote for their favorite among three 30-second TV commercials. According to the company, more than 400,000 people quickly showed up to vote, with the total expected to run much higher.

The main website offers consumers a chance to view the three contending consumer-generated advertisements, along with headline and brief copy encouraging them to participate, and a graphic representation of the current standings among the three contenders:

The three ads -- “Indecision”, “Love It!” and “Front, Side, Back” -- are largely composed of the same visual and voice-over elements, although in different sequences:

Strategic Note: The main differences between these three look-alike advertisements are found in the portrayal of the male character’s inability to choose among the three brands of tractor. In one, he simply cannot decide. In another, he expresses love for the tractors that rivals his love for his wife. And in the third, he tries to justify taking home all three machines.

Essentially, consumers are asked to choose on the basis of slight differences between highly competitive and roughly equal ads-- very similar to the choice that stumps the male character in the advertisements themselves. Home Depot apparently feels it has nailed the major characteristics that will please its customer base and is comfortable limiting its offerings within that narrow range. Has management considered that the company’s targeted consumers may echo the character’s inability to pick just one of these three?

GM got into the CGA waters with a contest to create the best Chevy Tahoe ad that consumers could cobble together from elements provided by the company. According to the rules, every entry had to contain five or more clips from the “provided assets,” including at least one clip from the categories “Responsible,” “Capable,” and “Refined.” There also had to be text and a soundtrack.

Chevy closed the contest on April 10, 2006 with thousands of entries from the United States and from Canada, and it invited consumers to come back to the site on April 27 for the unveiling of the winners:

Strategic Note: Chevy was careful in this CGA program to circumscribe the creativity allowed its customer base. The company sanctioned only the assembly of advertisements from pre-approved elements. In fact, it required the inclusion of specified numbers of those elements from particular categories.

It’s very much like asking kids to color by numbers, to follow the numbers using an extremely limited palette, and also to stay inside the lines.

This approach guarantees Chevy a useful advertisement, but sacrifices most of the opportunity for breakthrough creativity or messaging, as well as emotional authenticity.

A legendary brand for generations before falling on hard times, Converse abetted its remarkable resurrection by asking consumers to express themselves in a completed TV advertisement. The program’s main restriction, a 23-second time limit, cannily allows room for a sales message if the spot should ever be aired on TV. The result has been a continuing outpouring of creativity, messaging, and emotion.

Converse offers a true gallery of consumer-generated creative materials. Still photos that allow access to about 60 of them scroll across the bottom of the web page. Each consumer-generated ad is markedly different and highly authentic:

Click here to view the slideshow

Strategic Note: With this CGA approach, Converse has taken the biggest risk to date by opening the floodgates and encouraging consumers to produce whatever messages they wish. Of course, there’s little chance advertisements that they don't like will ever see daylight. Because of the perceived freedom of expression, however, countless consumers embraced the opportunity from the get-go and poured forth their feelings in highly creative and visually striking ways.

The CGA messages currently available on the Converse website range from those that totally ignore the product to several that focus completely on its iconic shape and markings, with a wide variety of treatments in between.

Arguably, this campaign represents the high watermark of CGA to date.

Since the launch of Current TV, visitors have been encouraged to produce their own programming. Now Current TV’s sponsors are also encouraging viewers to produce the kind of commercials they want to watch. Prize money ranges all the way up to $50,000, if your spot is picked for a major schedule of air-time.

In response to a continuing program of “assignments” put forward by the online channel’s actual sponsors, a wide variety of consumer-generated advertisements are on tap at Current TV:

The rules are fairly open in this campaign to generate grass-roots advertising for existing sponsors. Advertisers post “assignments” for the CGA ads they want, and consumers vie to fulfill them. The spots can run any length up to a whopping three minutes.

Strategic Note: If a spot is picked to air on Current TV, the creator gets an immediate $1,000. Creators can earn much more if a sponsor elects to place an ad in other media slots. To be competitive, consumers must study the ads currently running, so the program directly induces consumer involvement with the sponsors’ paid advertisements. The submitted spots, which amount to grass-roots feedback, will also point a spotlight at a product’s or brand’s most appealing characteristics, and could conceivably lead toward the identification of entirely new messages and ancillary benefits that may have escaped notice by the high-priced talent in the agency’s back office.

After a decade of accolades and favorable consumer response to its "Priceless" campaign, MasterCard is breathing new life into this aging concept by asking consumers to go online and supply the formulaic text for two sets of full-motion visuals.

Prominent on the website is an invitation to participate in the CGA program:

According to the rules, you can write four lines of text for either one of two prepackaged advertisements:

Strategic Note: MasterCard may perceive there’s less “love” in consumer-land for a charge card than for something with a degree of cult status, such as a popular computer or a legendary sports shoe. So while asking for consumer input, MasterCard is unwilling to expect too much or risk too much by loosening the restraints excessively. The company hopes to get feedback and input from consumers in a search for new benefits and angles to advertise, while also allowing consumers to “buy into” the product and the brand.

"Partly, it's the American Idol phenomenon," says Ben Wiener, CEO of WONGDOODY, a full service advertising agency doing interactive design and PR from offices in Seattle and Los Angeles. "Consumer created advertising allows the consumer to vote for something to stay or to get rid of something."

"If the campaign does engage and get people talking," says Mike May, an interactive media analyst and consultant with The Acorn Group, which programs and produces conferences on interactive media, marketing, and commerce. "The amount of budget you have to put behind that is reduced. If you get consumers talking about your brand, you don't have to spend to talk about it yourself. Of course, there's no point in saving money if you're not being effective. But if the consumer-generated campaign does work, it could result in more cost effective marketing."

Of course, not every product or brand can sustain a CGA campaign. Wiener suggests that nobody feels all that strongly about their underarm deodorant, for example. He explains the criteria for determining if a product or a brand can successfully support a consumer-generated campaign include having consumers who:

  • Feel passion for your brand and want a relationship with it

  • Are inclined to be creative

  • Have enough spare time and the technological means to participate.

Note: iMedia Connection also covers Consumer Generated media in Creative Showcase. Here are two examples:

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