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Al Gore wants to save advertising, too

Former vice president and Current Media co-founder says that we can look to the rise of user-generated content, as well as the Obama campaign, for Madison Avenue's future.

NEW YORK--According to former Vice President Al Gore, the importance of sustainability doesn't just apply to the environment. It also is key to the future of advertising.

"It really comes out of the environment, but in my opinion the key theme of this century really is sustainability," Gore said. "This theme of environmental sustainability has become a part of our culture, it's a part of our discourse, and I'm very optimistic that it will soon be a part of our policy."

Addressing the crowd of advertisers and online-media types at the Digital Content NewFront event put on by Digitas on Wednesday, Gore was speaking not as a "recovering politician" or a green-tech evangelist, but as the co-founder of Current Media, the experimental cable news channel that relies heavily on user-created content for both editorial and advertisements.

It's about time for our old views of advertising to die, he said.

"In the 20th century, the advertising model was based on the same principles that the Industrial Revolution was based on: scale," Gore said. "It was big, it was blunt, very expensive, and very intrusive, and audiences have now begun to resist that old advertising model even as the environment in which it is presented changes a great deal. The new model is very different because the media landscape is completely different."

More than half of the advertisements on Current are called "VCAMs," or "viewer-created advertising messages," Gore said. These are videos selected out of user submissions for brands interested in advertising on Current; the winner is paid by the advertiser, though it costs significantly less than the production budget of a traditional TV ad, and the winner receives an additional payment if the advertiser wants to use it outside of Current.

It's a model not unlike the wildly successful T-shirt company Threadless, which gets thousands of design submissions and gives a cash prize to the ones that it subsequently prints and sells.

Gore showed off a series of VCAMs proudly, as though they were home videos of his kids: One of them, created by two 24-year-olds, was a Mountain Dew ad about aspiring to be a professional hide-and-seek player. Another, created by a 29-year-old, was a T-Mobile ad showing people excitedly attempting to get picked for a "fave five" as though it were a dodgeball team. Gore mentioned another that was created by a 17-year-old who subsequently received a $50,000 check when the advertiser wanted to use it outside of Current.

There are problems, obviously, which some of the audience members brought up in questions. There are plenty of brands that wouldn't get aspiring filmmakers quite as jazzed as the car and gadget companies whose ads Gore showed off. And while the Flip-camera-toting young adults responsible for Current's VCAMs have the pluck and the free time to run around making commercials, it's easy to theorize that it would be tougher for a network with an older audience to pull it off.

Then there's the fact that while Current has been way ahead of the curve on some digital trends--displaying live Twitter messages onscreen, for example--it's still not a huge media powerhouse. The company canceled its scheduled initial public offering earlier this year, citing the bleak economic climate.

Gore, however, had an example of successful "sustainable advertising" beyond Current. What we can look at, he said, is his old job: politics.

"The most powerful new brand that we've all seen unveiled over the last two years is (Barack Obama)," Gore said, showing a slide of the "O" sunrise logo that became so well known during Obama's successful presidential campaign. "And what is it about this brand that made it so incredibly successful? It was all about empowerment, it was all about involving people to help deliver the message. It was very tuned into the new technologies and how people use them."

Just as the Obama campaign made efficient use of inexpensive marketing and publicity tools on the Web, Gore believes that the digital age has made it possible for high-quality ads to be ubiquitous, rather than just at the one time of the year when people get really pumped about what commercials will be on TV.

"During the Super Bowl, people leave during the game rather than the ads. They want to see the ads because they know something extra has gone into Super Bowl ads," Gore said. "(But) it's not sustainable to have that kind of ad budget and that kind of focused creativity that you find on those ads completely ubiquitous throughout the television year."

At the end of his talk, the former vice president was left speechless when one audience member asked him if he believed that the problem of carbon emissions could be solved by 2029 through the use of technology coming from UFOs.

"No," he said after a long pause. "I do not."