General Motors' decision not to yank those ads that mocked the Tahoe wasn't brilliant; it was a no-brainer. It's been clear for quite some time now that consumer control has turned the marketing model on its head. Audiences gained control of programming. Then they took charge of how, whether and when they would interact with advertising. Then came the breathtakingly rapid rise of user-generated content, led by a generation that -- to quote Chris Anderson's forthcoming book "The Long Tail" -- doesn't distinguish between commercial and amateur content. I'll go a step further; many of those teens put more value on content created by their peers than on much of the fare pumped out by Hollywood studios.
During a live focus group at Ad Age's American Consumer conference last week, panelists were asked which sources they rely on in making purchase decisions. Without skipping a beat, a 16-year-old high-school junior replied, "I go online to see what other people are saying." Forget advertising, promotions or even independent-media reviews. He trusts a largely anonymous Web community.
Controlling the dialogue
This is not an academic exercise, or a chilling scenario of things to come. It's today's reality, and it's why the marketing business can't tolerate those who cling to the old ways. "Marketers were all trained in a world where they controlled the dialogue," cultural critic Adam Hanft said during another event session. Even the language needs to change. The idea of "new media" is old. Teens don't see cellphones as a "third screen," another speaker said last week. It's their second screen, after the computer.
Those of you who are still with us may be feeling a bit woozy at this point, but lean against the wall, take slow, deep breaths and listen to this advice. Here's what you should do about user-generated content: nothing. Don't try to control the narrative. Don't kill the parts you don't like. Don't interrupt. Stand back, and learn.
When Poppin' Fresh was born in 1965, he came with a rulebook detailing what he would and wouldn't say, wear and do. Rarely was the Pillsbury Doughboy caught doing anything inconsistent with his brand image. The few times he was -- such as when he (gasp!) parachuted into the scene of one commercial -- his handlers went into cardiac arrest. Can you imagine if Leo Burnett introduced the chubby character today? He'd be the star of countless viral films, many of them unfit for consumption by anyone under 18.
Right thing to do: Nothing
Which brings us back to Chevy. As part of an "Apprentice" tie-in, the automaker invited consumers to make their own Tahoe commercials. Inevitably, some of them were less-than-flattering (although still entertaining). Chevy didn't yank those ads or threaten to sue their creators. It didn't scuttle the experiment. It did nothing, which was the right thing to do. Anyone in the market for oversize vehicles is already aware of the controversies that surround them. Truck critics didn't have the Tahoe on their consideration list to begin with. The ads aren't just harmless, they're beneficial. You have to respect Chevy for allowing an open dialogue -- even a discomfiting one -- about its products.
General Motors has learned the most important lesson of the new marketing age: how to let go.