User-created ads catch on

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Rather than dictating what their idea of cool advertising is, more marketers are asking online communities to come up with their own advertising and promotions., an Internet TV site, is one such company that's recently handed the ad controls to its audience. Others include teen site; AtomFilms, a rich-media entertainment company; New Line Cinema; and Swiss watch marketer Swatch Group.

The key element among the do-your-own-advertising campaigns is that the online community knows what's best. These campaigns are also cheaper to execute; industry executives say, in all of these instances, budgets have yet to reach $1 million.

"We don't want to assume that we're the ones that know what appeals to our audience," said Jeanne Meyer, senior VP-external affairs at, a site devoted to streaming original programming that depends heavily on interactive contact from its audience. "Our site is all about being interactive. . . . Why not engage our audience in interactive advertising as well?"

SUITED TO USERS' FANCY's ads, although created by agency Mezzina Brown & Partners, New York, are meant to be altered to suit the fancy of each user. The two ads, which ran during the political conventions on sites including NBC Internet, Excite@Home, and Time Warner's Road Runner, allowed Internet surfers to reconfigure the presidential candidates' facial features to their liking, a la Mr. Potato Head. While George W. Bush or Al Gore took on aspects of a pirate or a hillbilly, a hefty dose of branding also took place, Ms. Meyer said.

"The user is in complete control over the situation, just as they are when they come to our site," she said. The audience spent "a good amount of time interacting with us and isn't that the point? To interact?"


In another instance,, as part of its first network TV advertising campaign that began in early August on the Fox Network, handed cameras to several dozen teen-agers to shoot the spots. The site, which invites teens 15 and older to express themselves, already has collected about 30 commercials and more are on the way. A handful have aired during Fox's teen drama, "American High." Others, such as one depicting a young woman getting her tongue pierced, will appear only on

All of the 30-second spots, featuring the tagline "Don't hold back," are posted on the site and the community is asked to create future spots. Members vote on spots, share them with friends and help determine the direction of future "programming." Eventually, all Bolt commercials will be conceived, developed and selected by members of the site. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, in coordination with Haxan Films, the team responsible for "The Blair Witch Project," oversaw development and production.


Bolt said it did not take the actor's strike into consideration when developing its campaign. However, it made sure no card-carrying union members appear in any spots, a Bolt spokeswoman said.

"We're turning creative development over to our members, providing them with the tools to voice what they care most about, whether by doing their own video or voting on others," said Dan Pelson, chairman-CEO of

"It's not only creating tremendous viral energy and excitement, but it creates a more effective, more cost-efficient, brand-building product," he said.

Swatch Group also is pulling from creative talents of its community with the Swatch "Flash.Beat: The Internet Time Flash" competition, in which the watch company asked animators using Macromedia's Flash software worldwide to submit their best ideas for an animated Swatch "Internet Time" campaign.

The winners, who came up with animated shorts illustrating the concept of time, were announced in late August. Their ideas will be considered for future interactive ads and marketing from Swatch, said Andrea Caputo, Swatch's head of Internet business development. The contest, which attracted 300 entries from 30 countries to the Swatch site as well as a dedicated page hosted by AtomFilms, focuses attention on Swatch Internet Time, a global time concept Swatch created as a way of measuring time so that people logged on to the Web from all over the world are on the same time zone.

"This is purely in the spirit of the Internet, that is it's about giving people the availability to do things and to publish them on the Internet," said Mr. Caputo. "We can't possibly put a monetary value on this . . . on getting our community to play with us . . . and we are surprised by how much time and effort people are putting into their creative efforts."

Swatch also relied on audience participation to choose the winners of the contest ( Swatch, which would say only that this effort cost less than $1 million, plans to use winning entries for upcoming "Internet Time" advertising online and offline. Swatch handles advertising in-house.

"One of our contributors, we've heard, already has received a job offer based on the animation submitted to our contest," said Mr. Caputo. "I think that speaks well to the level of new ideas and talent we've been able to attract."


Drawing upon the audience to create its own advertising "is one-to-one marketing at its very best," said Scott Roesch, director of Web entertainment, AtomFilms. "The theory--one that we're seeing borne out--is that there are large, active communities of people drawn to online entertainment and that they have tremendous potential to be engaged in one-to-one brand-building activities."

The key marketing element of these grassroots advertising efforts is "the general public is increasingly engaged with a brand to the point of triggering a deep emotional commitment," said Brian Monahan, president of InRhythm, a San Francisco interactive agency. "They have to think about what your brand means to them and express it back. . . . You could not have gotten that kind of engagement and feedback before now, and we're just beginning to see the buzz that can be achieved by engaging the consumer in this way."


New Line Cinema formed a partnership with to give unknown artists or bands a chance to have their song included in New Line's upcoming Adam Sandler comedy, "Little Nicky." The contest, promoted through AtomFilms-hosted sites, invited artists to upload their tracks to garageband's Web site, an Internet music company; the field was narrowed to the top 10 by site visitors last month.

"Little Nicky" director Steve Brill will select the winning entry, which will be posted on the official movie site as well as on AtomFilms. The video and song also will be shopped to MTV for possible broadcast.

"This is a perfect example of community-based programming," said Gordon Paddison, VP-worldwide interactive marketing and business development, New Line Cinema. "I call it 'branding by socialism,' that is, the community decides what it wants. There is a high level of consumer awareness involved, an element of willing culpability on their part to be part of this process. They know it's advertising, we're not trying to deny that. But it's a chance for 15 seconds of fame . . . and not many people want to pass up an opportunity to participate."

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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