Handing Ad Reins to Consumers Is Risky Business

GM's Mash-up Effort Lets Online Users Create Content, but Also Opens Door for Backlash, Criticisms

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In a world of consumer-controlled content, the consumer can't be controlled.

That's a lesson learned the hard way by General Motors Corp., which used a technique called video mash-up to let consumers insert their own copy and create customized 30-second commercials for the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe. The result: a number of ads that attacked the SUV as a gas-guzzler, a contributor to global warming and a war-monger. "Don't buy me," read the copy over an SUV in one commercial.

The miscue set the video-Internet world abuzz about how to protect a brand while still ensnaring consumer involvement. It's a pressing issue at a time when video mash-ups-the practice of taking content from one medium and "mashing in" content from another to create an entirely different video clip-are the darlings of the consumer-generated content craze. A mash-up can include content from a TV show conjoined with home movies from a camcorder, or a video ad rearranged and rewritten by a consumer. The term mash-up was originally used to describe the DJ practice of mixing tracks from different songs to create unique tunes.

Quest for engagement

Allowing consumers to alter or spin content as they wish is an increasingly attractive technique for marketers clamoring for "engagement" with their audiences. Mash-ups work because they are trendy with consumers enticed by the 15-minutes-of-fame phenomenon that the Internet makes possible. Better still, mash-ups that truly engage are passed around the Internet, catching fire virally and achieving notoriety for the clip -- and the brand.

But letting consumers run free with a marketer's brand carries a huge risk. GM shouldn't be surprised that negative mash-ups materialized, some experts said. And the automaker wasn't. Pointing out that the program is keeping visitors on the ad site for an average of nine minutes, Chevy spokesman Mike Albano said, "We knew when we entered into the area of two-way discussion with our customers that there might be some negative interpretations of our ad." Chevrolet said it has no plans to remove the negative ads.

Some experts said there should have been a monitoring process for the homemade clips. For mash-ups in general, "There needs to be some guidance and some checks and balances out there and a lot of foresight about whether it really makes sense for your brand," said Eric Valk Peterson, VP-media director, Agency.com.

In fact, even the most avid advocates of mash-ups think monitoring should take place before the clips go live. "If you let consumers run wild-it brings you into a different world," said Ian Schaeffer, CEO, interactive shop Deep Focus, which created mash-up tools for Google Maps, which had 250,000 visitors in one week after an HBO ad used Google Maps to pinpoint "The Sopranos" storyline in northern New Jersey and New York City. The free service was used, said Mr. Schaeffer, "to take the fictional series and bring it into the realm of reality."

Oddcast, a company that develops and markets animated creatures called avatars and other user-generated media products, has created the tools for a number of mash-ups. The technology automatically screens out bad words in audio or in text, and in some cases uses human employees to monitor content before it goes live. "We have strict controls and the advertiser decides whether or not to use them," said Adi Sideman, CEO, Oddcast.

On Cheerioke, a site for Cheerios, children devise their own characters and record their own songs, but every scrap of content is monitored by Oddcast before it goes live. A mash-up site for Coke in the Netherlands presents a video-mixer tool with a number of images, video and song choices, but the visitor is restricted to using what is on the site. However, if there are too many controls, "It's not going to be embraced by anyone that's passionate," said Jeff Marshall, senior VP-director, Starcom Mediavest Group.

calculated risk

One of the most popular mash-ups was initiated by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, which called for the consumer-generated clips using the mask of Burger King's king icon and posted them on video-sharing site Heavy.com. One creation showed a woman wearing the mask, and after a strip-tease she is revealed to be a he. The notorious clip attracted more than 4.1 million visitors in just a few days. Consumers are still purchasing the mask and making their own "happenings," said David Carson, CEO, Heavy.com.

Because of the controversial content, the clip got plenty of press, and the BK brand is still enjoying consumer engagement four months later. "You've got to be able to take a calculated risk -- there are always going to be detractors," Mr. Marshall said.

Others said even the Tahoe mash-ups aren't bad news for GM. "If you're going to buy a Tahoe anyway, you don't care about the negative statements because you figure they are made by political extremists," said Colleen DeCourcy, chief creative officer, Organic. "If I'm a dyed-in-the-wool SUV driver, I wouldn't care."

Said Danny Fishman, president, Broadband Enterprises, a company that produces, syndicates and aggregates video content: "Brands are hyper-sensitive. Bad press is still press."

Contributing: Leslie Taylor
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