Ads for the people, by the people

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What if ordinary TV viewers went from watching commercials to creating them? We're about to find out.

Sony Electronics, Toyota Motor Sales USA and L'Oreal Paris have cut deals with Al Gore's Current TV that will usher the beleaguered 30-second spot into the age of consumer-generated content and send shivers down the spines of agency creatives. The marketers will enlist the network's viewers to produce commercials and will pay to air the best of those spots.

User-generated content is all the rage on the attracted 4.9 million unique visitors in January and reports 20,000 video uploads a day-and Current is exporting the phenomenon to TV.

The youth-oriented network, launched last summer with the backing of former Vice President Gore, aims to "democratize" TV by letting viewers create programming. At launch, it aimed for 5% to 10% of its content to be created by viewers, but the actual amount is closer to 30%.

The ad deals are a natural evolution of that, although they put advertisers-who are used to controlling messages right up until they hit viewers' eyeballs-in an unnatural, and potentially unnerving, position.

"Marketers grow up being brand guardians-here's the handbook, here's the logo, here's how we use it," said Anne Zehren, president-sales and marketing for Current TV. "Marketers now have to be brand hosts."

That reflects the view of many proponents of user-created content, who believe brands will have to learn to give up control, that creative agencies will see their role reduced and that consumers will have as much of a say as marketers in defining a brand's image.

"Agencies beware," joked (we think) Mike Fasulo, chief marketing officer for Sony. "It's a great reinvention . . . These are the folks we want to tap into speaking to each other-let's put them to work on their terms, not ours."

Sony will seek ads for several products, including its Bean MP3 player, while L'Oreal will ask viewers to submit promotional spots for its "Women of Worth" campaign and Toyota will solicit ideas for its new Yaris subcompact. Current TV did not disclose prices, but the deals are believed to each be in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million.

L'Oreal President Carol Hamilton said she thinks it will be "inspiring" to see the L'Oreal brand through consumers' eyes: "It clearly puts the control into consumers' hands, but in an interesting way. We have enough confidence in Current TV that the people involved aren't going to misrepresent our brand."

Whether or not marketers like it, it's already happening.

Tyson Ibele, a 19-year-old self-taught animator in Minneapolis, created a fake Sony spot last November that he posted to his personal Web site. The clip was quickly passed around the Web and became a hit; at one point Mr. Ibele had to yank it from his site when the traffic overwhelmed his server.

Current TV got in touch shortly after the holidays, telling Mr. Ibele his spot was a great example of what the network hoped to do with advertising. "We showed it to 15 Sony executives and they were speechless," Ms. Zehren said. The spot will be the first submission for the viewer-created ad program.

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