Advertisers look to grassroots marketing

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

Elinor Mills
Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
6 min read
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 "You Make the Commercial Contest" on the teen entertainment site Varsity World.com. The grand prize winner of that contest is a video called "Juicy," made by two students at Granite Bay High School in California. In it, a young woman's lips and love life become more colorful when she puts on L'Oreal lip gloss.

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.

Apple didn't really acknowledge the ad, but some companies may face problems from seemingly professional but unsanctioned ads.

"It doesn't take a large ad agency and hundreds, if not millions, of dollars to create an ad anymore," said Gordy Abel, vice president of marketing at the Carat Fusion marketing firm. The fan-created iPod ad "was one of the first standouts in terms of people stepping back and saying here is an unsolicited advertisement for a major brand that is pretty spot-on and has major production value."

There was the mysterious fake ad last year that featured a Volkswagen Polo and a terrorist whose suicide bombing attack is thwarted when the blast is confined to the inside of the car. Volkswagen denied any involvement in the ad and threatened to take legal action against its creators when the company suffered a public relations nightmare from critics who complained the video was politically incorrect.

"It was edgy and unpredictable and entertaining--all the hallmarks of really cool user-generated work--and it doubled as a brand message," said Monahan. "It happened to be in terrible taste, but I think it opened a lot of peoples' eyes."

A case of user-generated content gone awry emerged just last week when a do-it-yourself ad campaign for General Motors' Chevy Tahoe SUV was used by people to make "ads" that were critical of the company and its product. The spots showed the car, against a backdrop of rugged mountains, driving over rugged roads while messages appeared onscreen accusing GM of contributing to global warming. GM responded on Monday by saying it would not remove content merely because it had a negative tone.

"Homemade ads are great when they reflect well on your brand, but they could just as easily reflect poorly on it," said Gary Stein, strategy director at Ammo Marketing, a marketing agency focused on word-of-mouth. "It is a bit of a phenomenon because more and more people have the ability to create video clips. The interesting thing is that some companies are trying to kick-start it a little bit."

Indeed, the trend has spawned a Web site at Fast Twitch Media that will function as a sort of community job board for people who want to try their hand at making commercials for brand names. Submissions to the site were shown at the inaugural San Francisco User-Generated Ad Show, an industry event presented last week by the Bay Area Interactive Group, a professional trade association for digital marketers.

"I can't imagine that ad agencies are happy about this," Greg Stuart, chief executive of nonprofit trade group the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said with a chuckle.

Marketers are desperately trying to do something about the fact that most ads are not successful in appealing to their audience, he said. "I will tell you I've done a lot of research about advertising and creative, and about 65 percent of ads either miss on motivations or messaging," he added.

As the Chevy Tahoe campaign showed, corporations take a risk when involving the public in creating their marketing. In addition to subversive elements that can hijack the process, there are worries that content used in viewer-created ads might not be original, which may pose copyright issues, experts said. And despite their personal experience as consumers, viewers won't necessarily understand the brand and product positioning, the audience segmentation and the corporate message, they said.

"I don't think it's a trend," said Mike Donahue, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "Advertisers are always looking for creative opportunities to engage their brand users," he said. "However, it remains to be seen how long (user-created ads) will be used and how successful they will be."

Even the players banking on user-created ads say the ad agencies won't go out of business.

"There is no replacement for a multimillion-dollar agency spot with Puff Daddy and Beyonce," said Current TV's Decker. "Users can't afford Puff Daddy."