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Innovation Wednesday: Advertising In User Generated Nation-Must We Do Everything?

As if programming debates and blogging endlessly about the minutiae of our collective lives wasn’t enough, we the people are now taking matters into our own cams to show the Madison Avenue ad geniuses how it’s done.

As if programming debates and blogging endlessly about the minutiae of our collective lives wasn’t enough, we the people are now taking matters into our own cams to show the Madison Avenue ad geniuses how it’s done.

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The latest entrant into consumer generated advertising is Heinz. Ketchup lovers and wannabe filmmakers have until August 6th to create and upload their own Heinz commercial to the super special website, seeking internet fame, glory and a grand prize of $57,000. (Get it? 57?) The company is using ketchup bottle labels to promote the contest – 57 million specialty bottles were made! – and according to their website, more than 1200 videos have been submitted.

“If the old model was to spend money on TV advertising to get people to go to the store to pick up a bottle, the new one is to use the ubiquitous Heinz packaging to ask consumers to generate TV ads for us,” said Michael Bollinger, director of client services for Smith Brothers Advertising, via Media Post.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the impulse. A lot. I’m just watching the great User Generated pile-on and trying to make distinctions between what is truly authentic, and thereby ground-breaking, and what is merely a creative (and thrifty) use of distributed talent.

Case in point: The CNN/YouTube Debates. They were entertaining, occasionally provocative, but utterly bogus in terms of creating a new genre of debate. John Stewart did a better job of mocking the bogusosity than I did, so I’ll leave the comedy to the professionals on this matter.

Now, I’m not totally prepared to secede from user generated nation. There are a many notable efforts, and some are succeeding. As I wrote in the July issue, the Current TV network has incorporated a consumer generated element into their baseline business model. In their version, the network functions largely as a production community, encouraging their viewers to create a range of things, from short non-fiction documentaries or pods on any topic, to traditional commercials. The documentary format is the basis of their programming – and about 30% of what is seen on air is created by viewers. Would-be pod makers upload their work to the website, where the community coaches, comments and votes. Current also give their viewers the chance to create promo spots for the network, as well as VCAMs, or Viewer Created Ad Messages. But because they’ve woven this element into their very production fabric, it’s less about contest hype, and more about business as usual. It makes for some compelling programming, but also inspires a vibe that the network is actually… wait for it… by and for the people.

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The voting mechanism is particularly interesting. The more that registered members participate – upload video, post comments, green- or redlight various pods or ads – the more their votes count. That prevents newbies from getting all their online friends from greenlighting their submissions into submission, and also encourages a greater ownership of the site and the content it generates. And advertisers and filmmakers alike both enjoy it. Heather Crank, a 35-year old motion graphic artist from Denver, has done several short promos for the network and also got an ad for Pop Secret on the air. The ad took her about 3 days, and cost nothing but her time. “I already had the equipment I needed. And it’s a great way to be creative, get some ideas going.” She enjoys the democratic aspect of the process. “They give you a long time to work on it, a lot of information about what the client wants. The people vote on all the submissions, which is very gratifying.” And, she got paid long before her ad got on the air – which freelancers know almost never happens. (Going rate for ads shown on Current are $1,000, you get more if the client places the ad in other venues.)

But she gave a significant endorsement to the Current staff as well. “On one of my promos, I had trouble with music rights – there was a flake out on the signing of the paperwork, so I had to create the music myself. They were really nice – and give you a lot of information if you are new or haven’t done something before. You can get a lot of training.” It’s that commitment to the users in the user-generated model that seems to distinguish Current TV from the rest.

Another great example of user generated nation came from my pals at Arnold Worldwide.

These are the same folks that brought us the Truth Campaign, those edgy, multi-dimensional and radically activist anti-smoking ads and related experiences. I’m always interested in what these guys are up to – from Drivers Wanted to Straight from the Bog – never mind that I have a mad geek-crush on their managing partner and creative genius Pete Favat.

The agency was tasked with promoting Extra Value Meals, and, found this homemade homage to McNuggets on YouTube. (Industry research or procrastinating? You make the call.) The goofy film had been posted on the web about a year ago by Fernando Sosa and Thomas Middleditch, two Second City trained actors. Evidently this “bit” originated backstage before a student show.

Instead of going through the hype and circumstance of calling for entries, Arnold reached out to the filmmakers directly and negotiated usage rights and payment (not disclosed.) The ads are airing on television now. Of course, I love the – “Kid, I’m going to make you a star,” – aspect of this. But there’s something gratifying about taking a thing that was actually made by creative people in an authentic process – goofy though it may be – and taking it to a larger forum, rather than asking people to conform to a promotion that may or may not authentically capture their love for McNuggets.

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Or ketchup.

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