Calling on NBA Fans

It could have been the same old Super Bowl story. A creative team toils for months, and a client spends millions, on 30-seconds of big-game glory. Then, faster than the MVP can say “Disneyland,” the applause fades, the spot is relegated to routine rotation and, ultimately, assumes its final resting place on the agency reel.

But after spending about 14 months creating a story arc with Charles Barkley and Dwyane Wade — the shooting guard wants into the legend’s Fave Five — T-Mobile didn’t want its investment riding the bench. Instead, Seattle-based Publicis in the West repurposed outtakes from the Super Bowl spot for a user-generated ad contest. Consumers were invited to mash up the clips online and submit them for judging. The winning ad — from an Orlando, Fla.-based insurance salesman — bowed this month during the National Basketball Association finals, presented by official sponsor T-Mobile.

User-generated ad contests are not for the faint of heart. Advertisers including Doritos, Chevy and Heinz have all introduced them with varying degrees of success — some went without a hitch, others were inundated with unusable fodder or outright lampooned. But the T-Mobile campaign introduced a new twist on the recent favorite. Controls, both within the source material and the technology, ensured there would be little fiddling with the formula. Although the tactic sidestepped any public relations blunders, it raises this question: In an era when consumers are used to unfettered expression, can a campaign set strict parameters and still engage customers?

Background

It was the second quarter of SuperBowl XLII, and Wade was about to score. No, the Miami Heat guard wasn’t taking a Bo Jackson-like turn on the football field. He was about to score a place in Barkley’s Fave Five, a courtship that played out over six T-Mobile spots beginning in November 2006. D-Wade had begged, pleaded and bribed — “How about my championship ring. I’ll let you wear it for a week, two weeks. Okay, a whole month.” He shot, he missed, he nearly had it. “If you make this putt, I’ll put you in my Five,” Barkley promised, before ringing D-Wade’s cell phone at the crucial moment.

The May-December bromance played to NBA audiences, part of T-Mobile’s sponsorship deal struck in 2005. And as Wade’s star rose on the court and in commercials — he’s starred in ads for Gatorade and Converse