The potential upside-an engaged and empowered consumer-is clear, but then so is the downside: Marketers, who normally shy away from messages that sully their brands, court risk when they ask the population at large to create ads for their products.
That debate has regularly taken place in marketers' boardrooms all over the world and in these pages, but was dramatically underscored earlier this month as new and rather unflattering consumer-created ads for Chevrolet's Tahoe SUV started circulating.
The ads are hardly a marketer's dream. One creation connects the Tahoe to global warming; another comments, "we paved the prairies, reforested the hills, strip-mined our mountains and sold ourselves for oil to bring you this machine...and now that we're here, we can't get out of this padded cell."
A spokesman for Chevrolet said the company was aware of the risk going in but decided to go forward nevertheless. "We knew when we entered this area of two-way discussion with our customers that there might be some negative interpretations of our ad." The company said it did not plan to remove the negative executions, and said the promotion resulted in a lot more interaction on its site, a total of nine minutes per visitor.
A tamer example of consumer-generated content comes from Buick, which encouraged users to submit footage of them cheering for Tiger Woods at golfing events. The consumer-interaction tactic was part of the company's "Tiger Wins, You Could Win" campaign.
"You'll find everything [in this area] from the moronic to the sublime," said T.S. Kelly, VP-director of research and insight, Havas' MediaContacts.
Consumer-generated content isn't new-marketers have long used customer testimonials in ads. Driving the current boom is marketers' desire to reach an audience that's quickly migrating to the Internet, where, naturally, they create much of their own content. Broadband Internet access is rising dramatically in the U.S.-31 million households had broadband in 2004, and that number is expected to reach 71.4 million by 2010, according to Forrester Research. In addition, younger consumers-marketers' Holy Grail-rely heavily on the Web for information, communication and interaction.
Marketers might as well ask consumers to weigh in on brands-because they will do so anyway. Anyone doubting that should look no further than Lee and Dan. That duo created a viral spot showing a terrorist blowing himself up in a Volkswagen Polo, a mock ad that spread rapidly across the globe. Empowered by Web pages, blogs, and video-editing technology, budding Lees and Dans are showing up across the Internet.
The rub for marketers is that, on the Web at least, traditional rules are going out the window. Whereas the Federal Communications Commission has jurisdiction over TV advertising and the TV networks regularly reject ads that they deem inappropriate, there is no institution patrolling consumer-created ads on the Web.
Marketers must grapple with a complex environment-"controlled on one end, where ads are made by agencies focused on brand strategy, and then chaos on the other end," said Mr. Kelly of MediaContacts-and somehow deliver a coherent brand message.
While the Chevy example suggests that consumer-generated content can be an uncontrolled nightmare, in most cases, marketers closely track consumer-made material. Solicitations often include numerous rules and guidelines, and are made in combination with a promotion or contest to encourage participation, as in Buick's promotion with Tiger Woods.
Joseph Lewczack, partner, Davis & Gilbert, said the upside is that "you are letting people who are potentially creative do something with your brand to get the name out there." Gems may be unearthed in the process.
Last year, Burger King received a flurry of free publicity after popular Web site Heavy.com distributed masks of the fast-feeder's mascot, the King, provided by Burger King, to its most avid users. Some Heavy.com users created a racy video showing the masked King involved in a faux striptease. More than 4.1 million Heavy.com visitors streamed the consumer-created video. A Burger King spokeswoman had no comment on the results of the informal promotion, but noted that "it is a niche audience, and they found what their peers created very entertaining." That kind of content would have been a harder sell in a network buy.
For marketers, consumer-made content can be a relatively low-cost exploration. Those who submit films to the popular converseshoegallery.com give up all rights to their creations. The only chance for payment is if the film winds up on TV, in which case the creator gets $10,000.
success for 'slither'
A recent contest staged by NBC Universal seeking consumer-made content for its Universal Pictures horror film "Slither" generated submissions from about 1,100 people, and filmmakers picked a winner from a semi-final batch of 25. The payoff: $25,000 and a chance to be part of the ad campaign. "That was in case we got a lot of lousy spots, which we didn't," said Doug Neil, Universal Pictures' senior VP-new media.
There is some debate whether consumer-generated ads will fade away. "It's a great engagement device, but over the long term, I don't know why consumers will continue to spend their time on it," said Reuben Hendell, CEO, digital and direct marketing agency MRM Worldwide. "It's a fad."
Others are convinced marketing's future will involve fewer Lee Clows and more Lee and Dans. "You can't really put the genie back in the bottle," said Mr. Kelly. "Younger generations have technology at their fingertips, and for them it is natural to create, to change and delete. We have to have some kind of playbook in this miasma of technology, content and consumer sophistication."
contributing: t.l. stanley