Feature

User-generated ads kick off at Super Bowl

Marketers in the US are experimenting with user-generated ads.

User-generated ads kick off at Super Bowl

This Sunday evening, the Chicago Bears line up against the Indianapolis Colts in the 41st Super Bowl, America's flagship sporting event. But for marketers, the main point of interest will not be what is happening on the field, but what goes on during the breaks.

With upwards of 90m people watching, the Super Bowl has for decades been America's biggest advertising showcase. It's the place where Apple launched its feted 1984 commercial and Budweiser introduced its talking frogs. But some of this year's ads have a difference. Three advertisers - Doritos, Chevrolet and the National Football League (NFL) - will be using their multimillion-dollar ad slots to run commercials created by consumers.

This is a growing trend in the US. In the past year, user-generated TV network Current TV has experimented with make-your-own-ad campaigns for brands including Sony, L'Oréal and American Express. Dove recently launched its own contest in the US for an ad to be shown during coverage of the Oscars. A company called ViTrue has even been set up to offer advertisers a platform to develop user-generated ad campaigns.

It's an obvious extension of 2006's hottest marketing trend - user-generated content. In December Time magazine voted ‘you' - that is, the consumer - as its Person of the Year, based on the growth and influence of user-generated content on the internet, and in January Advertising Age followed suit when it named ‘the consumer' as its Advertising Agency of the Year, on the grounds that consumers generated more compelling brand communications in 2006 than any single agency. Most content of this nature has been online. The fact that user-generated campaigns have broken beyond the world of the web into the Superbowl represents a major leap of faith.

Where America leads, the UK follows, and there are already signs marketers over here are thinking about similar strategies. Two weeks ago, Cadbury asked customers to create videos of themselves eating Creme Eggs and post them on its ‘Gootube' site. ‘This is an acknowledgement that times are changing,' says Cadbury's UK internet manager Fran Dovey. ‘We're dipping our toe in the water to test whether it works with our 16 to 25-year-old target audience.'

So what can UK marketers interested in tapping into this trend learn from the US experience? The first issue is exactly how much control you give to consumers. Doritos, Chevrolet and the National Football League (NFL) have spent the past few months soliciting ads for the Super Bowl, with valuable prizes, as well as the honour of creating a Super Bowl ad, for the winners. But Super Bowl viewers are unlikely to see the raw jerky footage typical of amateur videos on the web and cable channels. The ‘consumer-generated' ads won't look much different from the slick and polished offerings produced by professional agencies, as they will be reshot before they make it onto the TV screen. The reason? Though the brands pay lip service to the idea that involving users in creating the ads helps win their engagement and advocacy, allowing consumers to play fast and loose with the brand attributes on mainstream TV is a foolhardy, even suicidal, strategy.

Chevrolet had its fingers burnt last year after it allowed visitors to its website to piece together images and text to create a commercial for its new Chevy Tahoe sport utility vehicle. Anti-SUV activists quickly seized on the opportunity to make videos condemning the gas-guzzling environment-destroying properties of the Tahoe, and though Chevrolet claimed that 84% of the content generated was positive, it was the 16% negative responses that circulated rapidly round the internet, leaving the brand with egg on its face.

Chevrolet has learned from its mistakes, and has sought more control over its Super Bowl ad, which will feature four car models aimed at younger buyers. It has solicited only ideas, has selected the winning idea with its agency, and had the ad professionally shot. The competition was only open to college students, and strict guidelines were designed to ensure that ads weren't vulgar or obscene and were in keeping with the image Chevrolet wanted to convey. All ads had to end with the tagline ‘Chevy, an American revolution', and the tone had to be ‘approachable, not arrogant or offensive.'

But this element of control undermines the very spirit in which the first user-generated ads were created - that is, offering to all comers the opportunity to create an advert that might appear on TV. Suggesting that you are open and transparent then censoring anything off-message could lead to a major backlash. The key is to give consumers the power to express themselves without leaving yourself open to embarrassment.

What's more, most of the winners of the Super Bowl and previous competitions have not been ordinary consumers, but creatives at other agencies, production companies and film students. The NFL Super Bowl ad contest, which drew 1,700 entries, was won by a man who worked for a sales and marketing company. The five entries shortlisted for the Doritos ad came mainly from aspiring or experienced film makers who were mostly older than the brand's 18-24-year-old target audience.

‘These people are not ordinary users, or even super-users of the brands, but, in effect, alternative, cheaper suppliers,' says Mark Boyd, creative director and director of content at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He argues that there is nothing wrong with using this approach to solicit creative input - provided you are honest about it upfront. ‘In the digital world consumers see through things very quickly and will bite back hard if they feel they are being conned. If you were a genuine consumer you would be extremely annoyed if you went to all that effort and a five-times director won.'

Indeed, rather than building consumer trust, user-generated advertising has the potential to destroy it completely unless clients are prepared to maintain their investment in the channel. "Once you open up a dialogue, you can't just turn off the tap: you have to keep communicating because people demand response and engagement,' adds Boyd. ‘That is very intensive to manage.'

One UK agency experimenting in this space is TBWA. In November it launched The Big What Adventure website. Billed as ‘an experiment whose goal is to both seek out and nourish creativity, wherever it may be,' the site shares real client briefs with visitors and invites them to come up with concepts for online ad campaigns, TV ads, posters, events and packaging.

Mark McGinn, who helps run the site at TBWA, says it is designed to "tap a rich new seam of creative talent" - though he admits that respondents are likely to be either already working in or aspiring to work in the creative industry. He says: "There is a huge community out there talking and developing ideas together on a massive scale. Lots of them will be awful, but you can get fantastic nuggets."

Some of these nuggets are clear in the US campaigns. From a client's perspective, this sort of competition offers an intriguing way of discovering how consumers use your brand and what they think of it. In effect, it becomes as much a piece of market research as it does a competition. For Dove, the idea of real people making real ads fit neatly with its ‘campaign for real beauty', but not all the ads sent in by consumers focus on this angle. Some talk of Dove as an indulgent product; others on how men like to use it when their wives aren't looking. One even talks about how Dove reminds her of her late mother. In a different vein, the videos entered into the Doritos contest highlight some very different uses of the brand - from the to the middle-aged man who spends 30 seconds dancing around clutching three bags of Doritos, to the twentysomething who films his naked girlfriend writhing in a bath of crisps.

Reggie Bradford, CEO of ViTrue, argues that this sort of insight can improve a marketing strategy. ‘People have complained about the content of ads for the past 30 years,' he says. ‘getting hundreds of thousands of ideas from consumers, including ‘power users' of your brand, must have the potential to improve the quality of the work compared to one creative guy at the agency,' he says.

That may not be good news for agencies who sell themselves on their creativity and understanding of the brand. Indeed, when Sony launched its competition with Current TV last year, chief marketing officer Mike Fasulo commented: ‘We can scare the agency. That's just fun to do.'

But as anyone who has spent time on YouTube will testify, the vast majority of user-generated shorts are at best uninteresting to most viewers, at worst unwatchable. And the same is the case for much of the content sent in to the US contests. Agency executives, at least on this side of the Atlantic, believe that while the consumer-generated content trend will continue as brands seek to get closer to their consumers, mass-market advertising will not be its most effective medium.

Marc Giusti, creative director and managing partner at digital agency Goodtechnology, points out that the internet is more suited to this sort of experimentation by brands. "The digital platform is a bit gritty compared to broadcast, which makes it more forgiving of flexible thinking and the ‘rawness' and ‘amateurism' that seem to equate to ‘authenticity' these days," he says.

Nick Emmel, senior planner at new media agency Dare, argues that the best uses of consumer-generated marketing involve more than a simplistic call for ideas. "This sort of content needs to move on from the point where brands are effectively acting as media for individuals to the point where they are creating a service for people."

He cites the Nike Chain, an online football video designed to connect football lovers around the world, as an example of the more evolved approach. Ronaldinho, whom Nike sponsors, kicks in the ball from the left of the screen, and there follows a series of videos created by users showing off their ball skills, accepting the ball from the left and kicking it out to the right. These are stitched together into one long chain, featuring the names and locations of each individual. So far around 800 people from 79 countries have participated. "Something like that has far more legs than a one-off user-generated TV ad," concludes Emmel.

Some brands are going one stage further than getting consumers involved in making ads. They are using the two-way power of the internet to solicit new-product development ideas. Ikea, for example, recently ran a competition getting consumers to design a home media cabinet. Several of the 5,000 entries have gone into production. Similarly, Dutch food company Olvarit got mothers to submit recipe ideas for a new range of baby food. The eight winning recipes feature the mothers and babies on the labels.

Goodtechnology's Giusti believes Volvo's advertising for its new C30 model might provide the blueprint for the development of user-generated content and product development on a joint TV and internet platform. The ad, created by Euro RSCG/Fuel, features the strapline ‘Tell us what you think' and directs consumers to its website where they can provide feedback on both the car and on a selection of video shorts featuring the car. One of the shorts portrays an audience throwing tomatoes and heckling as a woman unveils the C30 on a theatre stage.

"You have to be prepared to admit your faults, but Volvo has found a way of canvassing opinion and taking it back to its audience in a controlled way by telling them how it has incorporated their feedback in newer versions. Suddenly the consumer is being listened to in a new way," he says.

An ongoing dialogue is crucial for this sort of campaign. Involving customers in new product development is a way to pull them inside the business, building awareness and securing their loyalty. The case for asking them to make TV ads is less clear cut. For the consumer-generated ads making their debut at the Super Bowl on Sunday, the key to success will not be whether they can rival Apple's 1984 for creativity, but whether they can be the start of a deeper relationship between the brand and its customers. If not, they are little more than a PR stunt.

Case study: Dove

In December Unilever in the US launched a competition inviting women to create their own 30-second commercial to launch the new Dove Cream Oil Body Wash Collection. The ad that Dove feels best captures the essence of the new products and the brand's philosophy will premiere in a commercial break during coverage of the Oscars ceremony on US network ABC on February 25th.

The contest is being fronted by Sara Ramirez, star of US show Grey's Anatomy. Entries were accepted at http://www.dovecreamoil.com/ between December 14th and January 15th. The site allowed other users to comment on the videos and rate it themselves. The most popular ad among users went for the strapline ‘It's not where you bathe, it's what you use.'

The videos were reviewed by an anonymous panel of judges, and scored according to originality, content and creativity. The three finalists, drawn from more than 700 entries, were announced on January 24th. Text to come when this has been announced.

The winner will not only receive the honour of having their idea made into an ad, but will also win an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles plus.

Dove partnered with AOL to host the content site. A step-by-step tutorial and editing tools, along with sample Dove ads, were provided on the website to make the project easy for both novice and advanced film makers. People could also watch the videos on the site.

Kathy O'Brien, US marketing director for Dove, says: "Dove is always looking for new and innovative ways to engage consumers. Giving women control of the creative process is consistent with Dove's practice and philosophy of embracing ‘real women' in its communication."

Super Bowl adspend facts:

Over the past 20 years, a total of $1.72bn has been poured into advertising during the Super Bowl, according to TNS Media Intelligence. There have been more than 1400 ads, with 221 different advertisers.

The brand that has spent by far the most at the Super Bowl is Anheuser-Busch, which has appeared in all the past 20 Super Bowls at a total cost of $250.8m. PepsiCo, which has also bought ads every year, is second with $190.0m.

The price of a single 30-second spot at the 2006 Super Bowl was $2.5m, more than double what it was a decade before. This year the price is reputed to be $2.6m. However, there has never been more clutter - the 2006 game contained more than 47 minutes of ads, a Super Bowl record. he 2006 Super Bowl

The biggest category for Super Bowl ads is not the obvious candidates of beer, cars or soft drinks. It is in fact promotions for the TV network itself. About 25% of all commercial time during the game is a trailer for a programme by the network showing it. In 2006, this amounted to $52m in value.

History of Superbowl ads:

Super Bowl ads

It is fair to say that the Super Bowl ads are as much as a draw as the game itself. Every year the ad line-up is discussed in detail by the media, then analysed thoroughly for winners and losers. Classic Super Bowl ads include:

1977 Xerox ‘Monks' A monk is asked to duplicate an old manuscript by his superior. Rather than write it out laboriously he heads to a photocopying ship where the Xerox 9200 copies it for him. The head monk believes it is a miracle. By poking fun at monks, this ad encouraged US marketers to take a more irreverent tone.

1984 Apple ‘1984' This classic, Orwell-themed ad introduced the first Macintosh. Directed by Ridley Scott, it portrayed a room of people being brainwashed by Big Brother, before a blonde woman runs in and destroys the screen with a sledgehammer.

1995 Budweiser ‘Frogs' Three frogs begin croaking in a swamp - one says ‘Bud', the second ‘Weis' and the third ‘Er'. Simple but effective, the ad left you in no doubt which brand was being advertised, and the campaign was later expanded with extra animal characters. It became such a hit it was spoofed in The Simpsons.

2000 E*Trade ‘Monkey' Two old men clap along to a tune while they watch a monkey dancing. The punchline - ‘We just wasted two million dollars. What are you doing with your money?' The ad was the most recalled for its year, despite having the lowest production cost.