Amateur Hour, Web Style

The brand may be yours, but the message is me, me, me.

Nothing thrills advertising experts more these days than advertising made by...nonexperts. Clunky buzz phrases jostle for pole position to describe the trend—"user-generated content," "citizen marketing," "co-creation"—but the gist is always the same: The future of advertising belongs to consumers. Advertising Age even made "the consumer" its latest pick for ad agency of the year, arguing that "the most compelling content" is being made not by creative directors, but by "amateurs working with digital video cameras and Macs, and uploading onto YouTube."

Maybe this hoopla explains the popularity of a short film that made the rounds on marketing blogs recently. It depicted a couple on a date; the man wears a sweater that says ADVERTISER, the woman's says CONSUMER. Mr. Advertiser gases on about himself, until his frustrated date announces that she's fed up with this one-way communication.

In case you missed that sledgehammer to the forehead, the message is, Listen to consumers! Of course, listening to them is not exactly a startling insight. What's interesting is the message lurking underneath, which boils down to "But enough about me. What do you think of me?"

Experts who talk up co-creation suggest that brand owners must allow, or even empower, consumers to participate in marketing their products. Celebrated examples include the famous film of two guys conducting a symphony of Diet Coke-and-Mentos spews; Converse, Firefox, and others soliciting 30-second spots from nonprofessionals; Doritos holding a contest to let consumers name its next flavor; and the pro-iPhone clips that showed up on YouTube before the device was on the market.

But what really motivates the grassroots to co-create? More likely than product fandom or brand evangelism, I suspect, is co-promotion. After all, the main thing the Diet Coke-Mentos film promoted wasn't either of those brands—it was the two guys. They now get hired to do their stunt at fairs and are hooked up with a Web site that has an (ad supported!) revenue system that pays them when people watch their video—which is why these guys actively oppose having their videos end up on YouTube. The winners of Firefox's contest were eyeing careers in making ads and films, and obviously saw the contest as a way to promote themselves by skillfully promoting Firefox. And those early iPhone clips on YouTube? They were entries in yet another make-your-own-ad contest from a company called ViralMedium: "your chance to show the world you've got the vision."

You didn't have to be a genius—or an Apple fan—to guess that Steve Jobs's latest product was going to be a big deal, swathed in hype and attention. So a clever iPhone clip was a way to leverage a cultural phenomenon. Web surfers Googling all things "the iPhone" might forward one of these films and make its creator Internet-famous. In other words, it wasn't about evangelizing for Apple's brand. It was about leeching off of Apple's brand.

And why should this surprise us? Of course we're tired of listening to Mr. Advertiser. But when we get the chance to speak, it's not going to be about brands. It's going to be about us.

Rob Walker is the "Consumed" columnist for The New York Times Magazine and writes about marketing and consumer culture at murketing.com/journal.

Feedback: loop@fastcompany.com

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