Brands Beware: Consumers Use ‘Mutant Ads’ to Fight Back

It used to be “buyer beware”, but with social media, it’s now brand beware. A study reveals more and more consumers are turning to social media to release their own “mutant” ads, changing the advertisement landscape.

It used to be “buyer beware”, but with social media, it’s now brand beware. A study reveals more and more consumers are turning to social media to release their own “mutant” ads, changing the landscape of advertising.

So, what is a mutant ad? Contrary to what you’ll find by a quick search on YouTube, it has nothing to do with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead, a “mutant ad” is the name given to consumer created ads by a new study conducted at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Imagine an ad that begins like a typical coffee house advertisement. People are sitting around well lit tables, sipping macchiatos. There is light flooding through open windows and cleanly dressed baristas smiling. The camera centers in on a particular couple. The woman notes how good the coffee is – rich flavor, perfectly roasted, and cheap too! The man chimes in: “that’s because they aren’t fair trade beans. Coffee is way cheaper when child labour’s involved.” Something not right? That’s because this isn’t an ad made by a company; it’s an ad made by a consumer, specifically targeting a particular company.

The study – Understanding Consumer Conversations Around Ads in a Web 2.0 World – was published in the Journal of Advertising by Leyland Pitt and Michael Parent of SFU’s Beedie School of Business, Colin Campbell of Monash University in Melbourne, and Pierre Berthon of the McCallum School of Business at Bentley College in Massachusetts  investigated not just the mutant ads themselves but also the conversation that took place around the ads.

They noted that not all mutant ads are bad; there are a variety of reasons why a consumer might be compelled to make a mutant ad. Some ads are a tribute to a brand they enjoy or a gentle spoof. However, when a mutant ad did cast a negative light on a particular brand, SFU’s researchers warned that the outcome could be very dangerous.  Pitt notes: “The consequences, I think, are quite profound. Brand managers have lost control of the brand in this environment.”

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that the landscape of advertising and branding is rapidly changing and that companies need to develop strategies to navigate the new atmosphere.

For social media enthusiasts, the fact that consumers now play an active role in a company’s branding isn’t exactly a revelation. However, there’s often a lag between academia and current issues. That said, the study does make one very interesting point; Pitt notes: “You can’t just rush in […]. You’ve almost got to be invited to be a part of the conversation.” So, what if, instead otrying to lead online conversations or try to stop them, brands found ways to join them?

In the coffee house example, this would mean instead of releasing a statement or polished television ad, the brand might consider creating a YouTube response video. They might even consider making a mutant ad of the mutant ad. Now, that would be new.

If marketing used to be a one way communication between brand and consumer, social media is changing that. However, innovative brands need not panic; instead, they need to find ways to join the conversation.