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Marketers' New Idea: Get the Consumer To Design the Ads

If you were a teenage girl worried about underarm odor, what kind of ad would make you go out and pick up some Ban deodorant?

It isn't a rhetorical question -- it's the query Kao Corp., maker of Ban, is posing directly to girls and young women in a contest that asks them to create advertisements that other girls will respond to.

The contest, publicized in fall issues of such magazines as CosmoGirl and Teen People, has drawn almost 4,000 entries. Readers ages 12 to 20 were asked to submit an image and fill in the blank in the company's "Ban It" slogan. One contender, suggested by a Olivia P. of Tucson, Ariz., shows four girls in similar jeans and tank tops, with their backs to the camera. The headline: "Ban Uniformity.'' Nine winning images will be selected and will run in an ad scheduled to debut in US Weekly in March.

Drawing consumers into marketing campaigns is a time-honored tactic, whether companies are searching for the new Oscar Mayer kid, Brawny man, or Crayola Crayon colors. But in recent years, the Internet has furthered the conversation between corporations and consumers, tapping into the public's views and talents on a grander scale. Meanwhile, new technologies enable even amateurs to create sophisticated images. Earlier this year, Subaru of America enlisted fledgling filmmakers to produce 30-second films. The company was trying to generate awareness for the launch of its Subaru B9 Tribeca, an SUV.

Teens and people in their 20s seem particularly adept at creating their own content. Some craft mini-movies and post them online; others make audio files about their favorite subjects for downloading onto iPods or other portable devices.

And this same age group is the target audience most resistant to traditional hard-sell advertising. Bringing them into the ad-creation process should increase the odds that the resulting ad will hit home, marketers believe.

"Younger audiences have become incredibly cynical about advertising,'' says Steve Thibodeau, an executive with Dotglu, a New York ad agency owned by MDC Partners, Toronto, which is creating the Ban campaign.

Past ads for Ban have focused on the product and its benefits or "superiority,'' says Mr. Thibodeau. A 2003 print ad, headlined "Ban Razor Burn,'' showed a pink razor with flames coming out of it and emphasized the product's "outstanding odor and wetness protection."

In focus groups with teens earlier this year, Ban learned that such messages weren't working -- and that teenagers "wanted input on the messages being directed to them,'' says P.J. Katien, Ban's assistant marketing director. The teens' feedback inspired a new look and emphasis for the campaign, which now evokes emotional challenges facing young women. One shows two high school cheerleaders in a screaming match, under the headline "Ban Drama." Another shows a girl standing on a scale, with the headline "Ban Peer Pressure."

Ban's new approach seems to be working. After a three-year decline, sales of Ban rose 13.6% in the 52 weeks ended Nov. 27, according to market researcher Information Resources Inc. (IRI's data don't include sales from Wal-Mart and club stores.) The intensely competitive $1 billion deodorant category includes such big players as Procter & Gamble's Secret brand and Unilever's Dove.

Reaching young female consumers is tougher than it used to be, Mr. Katien says. Consumer-product companies followed a simple formula: "you explained the benefit and explained the product and they would buy it," he adds. "Now it's about getting her to feel like she is involved. No more one-way messaging." The ads created by young consumers will carry each creator's first name, last initial, and home town. They'll also have a slightly homegrown feel, because Ban plans only to tweak the language and do minor retouching.

A similar effort is behind ads for the videogame Sims 2, from Electronic Arts Inc. EA decided to play on videogamers' liking for making short films based on scenes from games. These amateur movies are known in the gaming world as Machinimas. EA brought 15 gamers to its Redwood City, Calif., headquarters to make the films, which became the basis of TV, online and print ads that began appearing in October.

"I pay more attention to ads that are created by people who actually love a product rather than some ad the company creates,'' says Jennifer Clark, a 34-year-old gamer from San Jose Calif., who crafted one of EA's ads. "The hard sell is sometimes hard to swallow.''

Whether ads designed by consumers will actually sell more products may be hard to determine. But marketers see encouraging signs. In March, Nike Inc., one of the first companies to take this approach, plans to bring back a TV campaign for its Converse sneaker composed of short films made by consumers. An earlier run of such ads ended in August after 14 months. Converse used 41 films -- 24 seconds each -- culled from 1,800 submissions.

One older ad, dubbed "College Hero,'' featured NBA rookies waking up, leaving their mansions, and driving to practice in SUVs, all with a hip-hop soundtrack. "Entertaining, but ... formulaic,'' says David Maddocks, Converse's vice president of global marketing.

By contrast, one of the new ads shows a game of Spin the Bottle shot from the bottle's point of view, with only the players' feet -- clad in Converse -- visible. Nike doesn't break out Converse sales data. But the new campaign was a "tremendous success,'' says Mr. Maddocks.

There's no standard approach yet to payment for consumers' contributions. Filmmakers whose Converse creations were used on television were paid $10,000; those whose ads appeared online were paid $1,000. Gamers who created EA ads were also paid.

Winners in the Ban contest won't be paid, but the young woman who crafts the best ad will be awarded a day with Hilarie Burton, star of WB's "One Tree Hill'' series.


Suzanne Vranica, The Wall Street Journal. December 14, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.