Crowd Control: Handing Creative To The Masses

The proliferation of digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create their own content, from blogs to podcasts to short films. With consumer engagement the new law of the land, advertisers are beginning to tap into that by encouraging consumers to create their own expressions of brands—and in some cases, even help craft their ads.

Last week, Pontiac and Geico launched online campaigns that sought to involve consumers in the creative process. Geico’s push seeks to capitalize on the fame of its gecko mascot through a new Web site, GoldenGecko.com, which solicits user-created short films starring the reptile. Site visitors can rate the entries, and the category winners will receive weeklong Hawaii vacations.

Pontiac is taking a slightly different tack, looking to infuse its traditional ad efforts with consumer creativity. In early September, it began a promotion that invites users to record their own play-by-play narration for college football highlights from the previous week. Using technology from New York firm Oddcast, users record their own narrations, which are then posted online. The best entry each week will be featured in a Pontiac commercial during national and cable college football coverage. “In this instance, it’s strategically sound and creatively sound to let consumers participate in the creative process,” said Don Peasley, account director at Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett Detroit.

The campaigns are the most recent examples of advertisers turning to their own consumers to shape their brand images. The near-ubiquity of digital photo and film technology and easy-to-use desktop editing software, along with increased consumer empowerment online, has built a mass of consumers ready and willing to define brands on their own, said Joseph Jaffe, an advertising consultant and author of Life After the 30-Second Spot (Adweek/Wiley). “At the end of the day, all consumer-generated content is an expression or internalization of what the brand means to them,” he said.

Kao’s Ban deodorant line involves its 12- to 21-year-old demographic, asking for input as part of a Web campaign that launched Sept. 15. Print and online ads drive traffic to BanIt.FeelBanFresh.com, which allows visitors to create a magazine ad, either using photos supplied on the site or their own uploaded snapshots. The depictions are to show what they would like to see banned from the world, and nine consumer creations will make up the magazine ad. MDC Partners-backed Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners designed the campaign, and it plans to run the ads in nationally distributed magazines early next year.

“We’re sort of sharing the brand with them,” said Mark Fithian, group account director at KB+P in its Dotglu interactive unit. “They’re helping define what it means to the marketplace.”

While outsourcing creative duties to the masses might seem like a client ploy to save money, the greater benefit is the ability to build consumer brand engagement and tap into the wellspring of ideas bubbling online, noted Kevin Swanepoel, interactive director at The One Club. “You have a 23-year-old in his basement doing things that are so creative,” he said.

Hardly a week goes by without a new example of consumers displaying their creative energy online. Recently, attention focused on the Web site FedExFurniture.com, where a pink-haired computer developer in Tempe, Ariz., named Jose Avila posted digital photos of his apartment, which is filled exclusively with furniture made from FedEx boxes. Earlier in the year, an iPod Mini tribute film created by schoolteacher and Apple fan George Masters won plaudits for its execution.

“It should be a stern wake-up call to agencies,” Jaffe said. “If you’re not going to take risks and be creative, consumers are going to do it for you.”

One start-up company hopes to harness consumer creative juices on brands’ behalf. Started by a former publicist for the International Trademark Association, AdCandy.com hopes to establish itself as a community for consumers to share their ideas. In two of its initial projects, AdCandy’s 4,000 registered users have vied to come up with a U.S. brand name for a Chinese motorcycle company and identify the demographic niche for FarylRobin Footwear. AdCandy recently began a contest to come up with new ideas for Coke, even though the company did not request them. “It’s not going to replace the traditional agency,” conceded founder Per Hoffman. “But working with the agency, it can be very effective.”

Most brands stop short of fully embracing consumer creativity. FedEx, for example, promptly overnighted a cease-and-desist letter to Avila demanding he take down his ode to their packaging. And while Geico is encouraging customers to send their video creations to friends, it has no plans to use them further. “Our intent was not to recycle these as commercials,” said Jack Johnson, business analyst at the insurance company.

Despite frequent paeans to consumer control, clients are unlikely to allow the masses to define their brand messages, said Christian Haas, group creative director at Omnicom agency Organic. Mostly, brands should confine themselves to providing tools for consumers to express themselves, he said, rather than seeing them as a shaping force for their ad creative. “Personally, I think there’s a little too much hype in it,” he said of consumer-created ads.

Jaffe warns advertisers will lose if they do not fully embrace the democratization of the Internet, holding up Converse as a model. Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Converse’s lead agency, conceived ConverseGallery.com, which has drawn 5 million visitors and 1,200 video submissions since its launch in August 2004. The agency has converted 40 into TV spots that have run on ABC, MTV and other cable channels.

Involving consumers in the creative process goes against the grain of the agency mindset as brand stewards, but the payoff can be more authentic messages. “The general [agency] perspective is, ‘This is our work, this is what we do,'” said John Butler, creative director at the Sausalito, Calif.-based BSSP. “We knew we’d be fundamentally changing the model. We knew we couldn’t impose our creative stamp on everything.”