Brands Ask Web Users To Fill In The Creative Blanks

If Converse’s latest TV spots are any indication, the democratizing of ads has just begun. This week, the shoemaker is kicking off the latest installment of what it calls its “brand democracy” experiment with spots airing on MTV that were created by Converse fans. Meanwhile, MasterCard used the Oscars to solicit copywriting ideas from viewers for an upcoming spot.

These examples illustrate marketers’ growing intent to benefit from consumers’ creativity and willingness to share—as witnessed on social networking and media sharing sites such as MySpace and Flickr.

“The idea of a company in a 50-story building talking down to a consumer is becoming an old industrial model,” said Ed Cotton, director of account planning at Sausalito, Calif., independent Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Converse’s ad agency. “The smartest companies understand that by being more transparent and encouraging a dialogue they can build the consumer into the process.”

Since August 2004, when Converse began soliciting videos to express its identity, its Web site has received more than 1,500 film entries. For the TV spots launching today, Converse drew 450 entries from 18 countries. While some winning entrants were aspiring and student filmmakers, they also included a delivery truck driver, a women’s clothing salesman and a 19-year-old who made a short with a bunch of his friends on a Saturday afternoon.

MasterCard attempted to ignite consumer creativity during Sunday’s ABC telecast of the Academy Awards. It aired two spots with its familiar “Priceless” theme, only it left the copy blank. One commercial shows a sailing scene with a voiceover saying “Blank and blank, $129.” The commercials point viewers to www.priceless.com to “fill in the blanks” for a future commercial.

After a panel reviews the entries, one user submission that best fits either of the commercials will be selected. Interpublic Group’s McCann Erickson in New York, MasterCard’s agency, will re-create the ads with the winning entry and air them in the summer.

MasterCard sees its “Priceless” effort having broad appeal due to the familiarity with its TV commercials that have run for the past eight years and which have already spawned countless Web parodies and late-night TV show sketches, said Amy Fuller, group executive for Americas marketing. “The campaign idea is so baked in, it allows us to invite in the consumer to participate because we know they’re already engaged in it,” she said.

Visa earlier this month took a different approach to tap into the deep well of consumer-generated media. In its new “Life takes” campaign, Visa interactive agency AKQA wanted to express life’s simple moments in a realistic way. When the San Francisco independent’s executive creative director P.J. Pereira sent his team to comb through Flickr for ideas, he noticed the images worked better than anything AKQA could produce to illustrate themes like mystery, courage and teamwork. The agency used 20 Flickr-collected images, after getting permission.

Authenticity is the Holy Grail of user-created advertising and it has been the key to Converse’s online efforts, said Erick Soderstrom, senior director of global marketing at Converse. “The moment we start manufacturing brand democracy, we’re failing ourselves,” he said.