consumers as creatives

Rich Thomaselli from Advertising Age called me recently for some comments for an article he was writing, “If Consumer Is Your Agency, It’s Time for a Review.” ad_age_logo The piece turned out to be a great analysis of how the use of John Q. Public to develop ads has “jumped the shark” (as Rich refers to it).  He calls out companies for turning over their marketing to consumers through contests like Doritos’ Super Bowl campaigns and Folgers’ recent contest asking the Average Joe (pun intended?!) to update its famous “Best Part of Wakin’ Up” theme.

Rich reached out to me because of an article I had written several years ago for BrandChannel. In it I argued that “consumer-generated advertising as a marketing strategy is a lazy and irresponsible approach to branding.”  Because “brands are the responsibilities of the companies that produce them,” companies were missing out on the opportunity to demonstrate brand leadership and achieve internal alignment with the brand by leading the creative development of their ads.

It wasn’t a popular opinion at the time, since many brand managers were just discovering the benefits of a two-way dialog with customers and the creativity which new media unleashes.

But I stuck to my ground and wrote other op-eds on the subject, including a piece for imediaconnection which called for a reality check on “consumer-generated” ads: “The ads that win the contests and get exposure are not created by consumers. They’re made by aspiring film-makers and prosumers looking for their lucky break. By calling these ads “consumer-generated we are propagating the myth that they are engaging a brand’s users.

Well now it seems others are coming around to embracing my point of view.  In the recent Ad Age article:

  • Jackie Huba, co-author of the book “Citizen Marketer” and writer of the Church of the Customer blog, says “These contests asking people to create commercials and jingles are contrived…Marketers should be leveraging word-of-mouth jet streams.
  • And even Pete Blackshaw, who writes the Consumer Generated Media blog, concedes, “the novelty has worn off [and] brands are struggling with the harshness of the consumer voice. A lot of brands that jumped into CGA and the social-media conversation have found there are tradeoffs.

The concerns I outlined in the piece were:

  • You’re getting these very poor quality spots, and it’s not even done in seriousness anymore…That’s definitely affecting the quality of what we’re seeing.”  When this new tact first started, professional or semi-professional people were the ones submitting their work, so even if it was off-strategy, at least it was good film.  Now everyone with a webcam or a Flip is making these ads and their amateur roots are obvious.
  • Also using contests to get people to make ads about your brand seems disingenuous.  “…it lacks the authenticity. It’s going to happen with a brand real soon where there will be a backlash against this.”  People will realize that companies are essentially bribing them into promoting their brands.

I shared with Rich an additional point which got left on the editing room floor:   These campaigns are no longer necessary.  Brands which have enthusiastic customer bases don’t need to run contests to incentivize people to create ads – their fans do it on their own.

Having said all this against so-called user-generated ad campaigns, I do believe there are a couple of situations in which such an open approach might contribute real value:

  • To promote consumer-friendly video production products – “User-generated” ads can showcase the results achieved by everyday people using your products.  So the aforementioned Flip camera might be an appropriate candidate for a consumer-generated ad campaign.
  • To engage your employees – McDonald’s has been running a “Voice of McDonald’s” contest which has more recently evolved to include elements similar to a user-generated ad campaign. The program involves a contest in which employees around the world submit video entries of themselves singing a la American Idol.  They compete to become the official voice of the brand and to win a $25,000 prize.  McDonald’s has opened up voting to the public and used both traditional and social media to promote the program.  In this case, the “users” are actual McDonald’s employees and the program serves to engage them with the brand as well as strengthen their relationship with customers – it seems like a win-win-win.

So what do you think?  Are consumer-generated ads still an effective approach for brand managers?  Or have they lost their luster and should be put out of their (and our) misery?  Comments open.

related post:  a case against user-generated ad contests

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