Transformation? Not Exactly.

For Chapter 4 -- "Spot On."

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In the previous post, I described George Masters' pioneering CGA for the iPod Mini, "Tiny Machine."

Of course, not every consumer ad-generator is George Masters, and surely not every CGA is "Tiny Machine."

MasterCard learned that only too well recently after staging a promotion in which consumers were solicted to fill in the blanks leading to the brand buzzword "priceless." For the company, which has publicly discussed its determination to reduce advertising production costs as a ratio of its overall ad budget, success in this experiment could have been priceless, too. Never mind tapping the enormous value of consumer evangelism, an agency spot costing $350,000 is $350,000 more expensive than one costing nothing. Alas, no such luck. In a June speech to the Internet Advertising Bureau, Cheryl Guerin, MasterCard International's VP-promotions and interactives, reported "we were hardpressed to find a lot of good ads."

And I'm, like, duhhhh. A couple of years into this realm, what we've learmed is that most consumer-generated ads are the work of tiny little talents with tiny little budgets pursuing tiny little ideas. Ironic and sad as it sounds, citizen "creatives" tend simply to be amateurish versions of professional creatives. Rather than coming at advertising solutions from utterly new directions, they palely mimic the techniques, conventions and cliches of Madison Avenue.

This phenomenon became all too apparent in 2006 when Current TV, the digital cable channel devoted to consumer-generated content, persuaded Sony, L'Oreal and Toyota to participate in a CGA contest. They called it "V-CAM," Viewer-Created Advertising Messages. They might just have easily named it V-CRAP. My God, were the entries awful. The majority were amateurish exercises in homemade digital effects. The remainder were vignettes starring the filmmakers, their friends or their kids. As a group, they made "Funniest Home Videos" look like "Wings of Desire."

That the submissions lacked technical sophistication was no surprise. What was striking was the utter vacuum of underlying ideas. For lovers of the status quo, this is encouraging, because even the bottom tier of agency-produced ads worldwide usually have a point to them. It's often a stupid one, but it's there. In the V-CAM contest, it apparently never occurred to a single entrant that the video was supposed to make the viewer more favorably disposed to the product. The only thing that did seem to occur to the entrants, in fact, was "Hey! Look at me!"

Once again, there's plenty of that in the agency world, too. Whole books have been written on the subject. But take my word for it – and I know this is damning Madison Avenue with faint praise -- professional vacuousness is better than amateur vacuousness any day. And even if the amateur work manages to approximate professional production values, if that's all it offers, why bother with the exercise to begin with?

Consider the winning V-CAM spot, called "Transformation" from a 19-year-old Minneapolis animator named Tyson Ibele. Using logos and stills provided by the advertiser, Ibele depicted products morphing -- a la Transformer toys -- into one another: a boom box into a plasma TV into a notebook computer into a camera into a handheld Mpeg player into the Sony logo. Meanwhile, on-screen type punctuated the images: "Innovation. Compact design. Experience. Vision. Adventure. On the move. Groundbreaking. Revolutionary."

Ibele worked for a digital production house, so its no wonder the piece was well-constructed and the effect seamless. It's also no wonder that the idea came to him; it's been done quite a bit before, including a wildly overrated Renault spot that won a lot of international awards while selling, I'm pretty sure, zero Renaults. Like that expensive exercise in "creative" self-involvement, "Transformation" transforms for its own sake, not to make any positive statement about the brand.

Which, come to think of it, doesn't suggest much transformation at all. What's the point of having a revolution if the revolutionaries just imitate the old order?
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