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Consumers don’t just buy goods; now they create ads

Marc Williams, executive creative director of Stone & Simons Advertising in Southfield, Mich., has worked on the Shedd’s Spread Country Crock brand for six years. In January, his world was rocked. Stone invited the public to fashion a 30-second spot for the Lipton product.

The rules were simple: stay true to the brand’s traditional framework—include a man’s and a woman’s hands, playful banter and the product. “It was not unlike a creative brief that would have been given to the creative department,” says Williams. “Then the fun started.” A thousand entries were received; 800 met the criteria.

The novice creative (yet to be identified) will win $25,000 and be flown to Hollywood, where he or she will watch the concept be produced by a commercial director. The winning entry will air on prime-time television on May 14; the agency’s ad will air the same day. What’s telling is the trend: Creative directors and their clients are sharing the creative process with consumers in a democratic way. Advertisers aren’t content with focus groups; now consumers are participating in an ad’s creation.

Country Crock is sticking with traditional TV media, but Nike, Ford and new online companies such as Epinions.com are using the Internet to put today’s savvy consumer into the driver’s seat. Consumers are logging on, choosing their favored endings, voting on characters and plot lines, and, in the case of Epinions.com, even deciding which ads will run.

This curious mix of high-tech maturity and old-fashioned gimmickry is aimed at cementing brand loyalty and securing sales. “It’s not a new idea. It’s like when companies used to have jingle contests, when you could write a jingle or a themeline for a packaged-goods company,” says Williams. But in today’s ad-saturated consumer culture, with more brands and more media outlets, the competition is fierce.

“Brand communication just isn’t one-sided anymore,” says John Lebl, brand manager of Shedd’s Spread Country Crock. “The popularity of the Web is proof of this. Consumers want more of a voice.”

When J. Walter Thompson, Detroit, was introducing Focus, Ford’s new line aimed at entry-level drivers, it knew it had to do something different. Last fall, JWT launched a campaign featuring commercials aired live from the set. But instead of coming off as spontaneous and fun, the commercials were stilted and painfully encumbered by the live production. This month, JWT revamped the advertising, adding an online voting element at www.focus247.com that allows viewers to help determine ad content. They can choose which character will appear in the ads and even send dialogue suggestions.

“What we learned was the fact that being live wasn’t enough,” says Julie Roehm, brand manager of Focus. “We thought what can we do to make this even better, make it more interactive and let consumers be involved with the commercial and get interactive with it?”

The night the first spot aired, March 8, Roehm says the site received 15,000 hits, with close to 9,000 of those leading to actual votes. According to Bruce Rooke, executive vice president, executive creative director at JWT, a few weeks ago, more than 1,700 people voted on the name of the dog that appeared in one of the spots.

That consumer interaction is prized. “You drive involvement with a brand through a different experience than you used to,” says Rooke. Its’ also a company that is willing to get you involved. The door is open. We’re not the all-mighty, all-knowing company that is telling you what you should buy, stupid. We’re wondering if you’re forward-thinking enough to try things. It sends a message about Ford and challenges the old image.”

Similarly, Nike created the first TV/Web ad—its “whatever.nike.com” campaign—in January. It allowed viewers to log on to the Internet and choose from multiple endings to commercials which ran on television.

Although Hal Curtis, creative director at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., admits the effort “appealed to a narrow audience,” he says it achieved something all advertisers seek. “When we got someone, we really got them,” says Curtis.

But what is all this “interaction” doing for sales? Roehm says Focus’ sales targets are on track, with nearly 100,000 sales to date. More importantly, the ads are reaching the target market. “Through February, 46.2 percent of sales were to under 35-year-olds, 35 percent, 25 and under,” she says. “What we have been doing for total marketing strategy is working.”

Yet whether the “interaction” will lead to better advertising remains to be seen. Will agencies become mired in consumer research and testing?

“We’re already dealing with client committees; now we’re going to talk to the entire world at once? We’re going to let it hang out there so they can shoot it down?” asks Paul Venables, creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. “It’s a scary proposition.”

Goodby recently launched a campaign for Epinions.com, a Web site featuring product reviews written by consumers. To introduce the site, Goodby asked online participants to create commercials. After selecting certain ideas, the agency provided the reviewers with video cameras and asked them to film themselves.

At the request of the client, the commercials were then posted on the Web, where visitors could critique the ads and vote on whether they should air. The “gut check” didn’t bode well for all ads. One spot showing a reviewer shooting an iMac computer was shelved. “I was extremely disappointed to see the iMac spot get held back,” admits Venables.

While experimentation with consumer participation is exciting, Venables warns that it is not for every client. “Epinions is a marketplace for thoughts,” he says. The campaign was a natural evolution for the site. “The product is their opinions,” he adds.

If the effort doesn’t fit the product or brand, the extended consumer interaction could backfire. “There are going to be a lot of campaigns asking viewers to log on and call the next play, but no brand is going to be built and maintained on that kind of execution,” Venables adds. “If it’s just a scam to log on, you are not going to go back because the brand mistreated you.”

Still, consumer input allows clients to obtain valuable information. And it’s creating a new type of ad.

“We see it as the future of communication,” says Rooke. “It’s not the passive 30-second spot. We send them somewhere they can have a relationship. It’s a fundamental shift in the way we do business.”


Eleftheria Parpis, Adweek—March 27, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Adweek and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.