Advertisers look to grassroots marketing

As viral video becomes all the rage online, national brands are turning to ordinary folks to create ads.

Perhaps the best Sony "ad" last year was created by a customer.

The slick video, called "Sony Transformation," features a stereo system that shape-shifts its way into different electronics devices courtesy of mind-bending "Matrix"-like special effects.

The spot was created in November by then-18-year-old, self-taught animator Tyson Ibele as a demo at MAKE, the small visual effects studio he works for in Minneapolis. The spot was viewed by executives at Current TV, an independent television network that focuses on viewer-created content and whose chairman is Al Gore. They called Ibele and asked him to submit it to the V-CAM (viewer-created ad message) campaign that Current has launched for advertisers including Sony, Toyota and L'Oreal. But first they did a little fact-checking.

"I brought (the spot) into Sony and said, 'Come on! You guys did this,'" recounts Colin Decker, creative director at Current TV. "And they said 'No.'"

In a world where blogs are as common as bumper stickers and YouTube has made viral videos as hot as Napster downloads were in their heyday, it's no wonder marketers are looking to John Q. Public for ideas. Corporations are jumping on the viral bandwagon in an attempt to appeal to a population for which disparaging advertising has become a philosophically based rallying cry.

Meanwhile, inexpensive digital cameras, more-powerful computers, easy-to-use editing and publishing software and the proliferation of broadband makes it easy for anyone with a laptop and some imagination to express himself or herself in hitherto out-of-reach ways.

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Video: Are you a marketing genius?
Big retail brands turn to customers for ads

"Traditional marketing methods have fallen short," Decker said in explaining why he expects viewer-created ads to take off in the market, particularly for the 18- to 34-year-olds who watch Current TV. "This demographic does not respond positively to something overly produced and (that is a) hard sell."

In the Current TV V-Cam campaign, viewers can enter video for any of seven campaigns and get paid $1,000 if their spot is chosen to run on the network. Toyota wants ads for its new Yaris car, L'Oreal Paris is marketing its High-Intensity-Pigments line of cosmetics and seeking a video testimonial to celebrate "Women of Worth." Sony is marketing its Handycam and Walkman, as well as looking for general ads that represent its style.

L'oreal Paris is also sponsoring a

Nike-owned Converse is asking amateur ad makers for original 24-second videos inspired by the Chuck Taylor AllStar Converse sports shoe. Chosen spots will be featured on the Converse Gallery Web site. "We only ask that you keep it apolitical, positive, original and inspiring," the site says.

MasterCard is opening up its "Priceless" ad campaign to the public. Participants can select one of two premade video clips and fill in the blanks that go along with the scene, naming products that cost various prices. The happiness that comes to the actor at the end of each clip is, like the campaign's name suggests, priceless.

Meanwhile, USA Networks is inviting people to upload material about themselves in videos that "could make it from the computer screen to the big screen."

"The holy grail for me as a marketer would be to have an entertaining viral video that was getting passed around and it doubled as a commercial," said Brian Monahan, who oversees online and offline ad campaigns for Microsoft at the Universal McCann ad agency. "Can we produce work like that? I don't know. But I'm counting on the kid in his bedroom who has a really funny idea."

How about a high school teacher in California's Orange County? George Masters paid homage to the iPod in a 2004 spot that at the time was widely distributed and praised as surpassing Apple Computer's own iPod commercials in originality.

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