Despite frequent reports of its demise, TV advertising is far from dead. JWT, in fact, is looking to prove that the best of it can thrive in the era of consumer control by dipping its toes into online social media. The agency has sewn up all the front page ads on the news blog site HuffingtonPost.com this week, inviting users to view, comment on and share some of the agency's best TV ads.
The experiment, JWT worldwide CEO Bob Jeffrey said, would show that advertisers can benefit from social media because "work that's really good, people tear it out and save it and pass it around," much like they did with early Absolut print ads.
The ads invite users to view JWT commercials for clients such as Ford, HSBC and JetBlue. After clicking, visitors are taken to a separate section where they can see nine different JWT spots, leave comments and forward the link to a friend. Jonah Peretti, a partner at HuffingtonPost.com, said the effort is a joint experiment to see if social media sites are fertile ground for TV ad messages to enjoy a viral effect. "If you make excellent advertising, good content and put it in an environment [where]it can be shared, you can learn a lot about how to improve what you're doing," he said.
Success hinges on two propositions: Visitors will want to pass around ads and they will care enough to comment on them.
While the Super Bowl year after year captures wide interest in the ads themselves, online video sharing has shown the phenomenon has legs throughout the year. YouTube, Google Video and similar sites have a number of ads among their most popular videos. Nike, for instance, has several that have garnered over 1 million views, along with high user ratings. Crispin Porter + Bogusky's videos for Volks- wagen are also among the most-viewed clips.
To capture user attention and compel them to spread the ads, the WPP Group agency network has included pieces that would never make it on American TV. A Ford ad from Asia features King Kong's son playing with a truck rather than eating his lunch, much to the chagrin of his father and surprise to the truck's owner. A spot developed for Scruffs, a British manufacturer of work clothing, features an "instructional video" that shows a construction site where male workers inevitably end up having sex with female co-workers.
Even with edgy content beyond the typical 30-second spot, will consumers really constructively comment on ads? JWT thinks so, based on the quality of the work combined with HuffingtonPost's engaged audience. "We think people are going to blog about it," said Marian Salzman, JWT's chief marketing officer, noting the site's readers are a "community of influentials."
JWT will post both positive and critical comments, she said, only deleting those that raise legal concerns. The notion of asking for and posting consumer feedback in ads has been tried before. Weblogs Inc., a network of blog sites now owned by AOL, last year began running ad units that displayed user comments, much like a blog posting.
While JWT paints the promotion as a foray into "social advertising," Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer at Cymfony, a social media analysis firm, said advertisers often mistake social media as just another channel, rather than an opportunity to have a fundamentally different conversation with customers. "They've got to break out of this mentality of pushing messages at people," he said. A better approach, suggests Mark Kingdon, CEO of Omnicom's Organic, is to involve consumers much more deeply. "We'll see brands created by a community by their contributions and conversations," he said.
Sarah Bernard, gm at HuffingtonPost.com, acknowledges the JWT pilot is a first step, but that, if successful, it could serve as a template for a new ad model that better suits the unique attributes of social media. "We're hoping we can provide a new context that is non-disruptive and find a way to the ads as interesting as they can be in a blog environment," she said.