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An Agency's Worst Nightmare: Ads Created by Users

It all happens in 24 seconds. Like a souped-up Transformer robot, a silver Sony stereo rapidly deconstructs, then reassembles into the shape of a flat-screen television. The television then converts into a DVD player. The DVD player to digital camera. The camera to portable PlayStation.

The animated spot is the latest television commercial for Sony Electronics, but its creator is not a technology wizard at either of Sony's two advertising agencies. The commercial is the work of Tyson Ibele, a 19-year-old from Minneapolis who won a contest on the cable network Current TV for its first viewer-created ad message; it will run for the first time today.

User-generated content, best known for fueling the popularity of Web sites like YouTube and MySpace, is rapidly taking hold in advertising. Dozens of entries were submitted for the Current contest, and Mr. Ibele's commercial will run for one to two months on the network. In the coming weeks, more user-generated ads for companies like L'Oréal and Toyota will follow the Sony commercial.

"User-generated content is sort of the word of the day," said Anne Zehren, the president of sales and marketing for Current TV, which was started last August. "And I think smart marketers will start harnessing that."

Current relies on user-generated content for roughly one-third of its programming, from fashion features to foreign documentaries. The network operates under the theory that its programming will be more relevant if its audience, primarily 18- to 34-year-olds, have a voice in creating it. If the audience is interested, there is less of a risk that they will tune out in favor of other entertainment like the Internet and video games.

User-generated content owes part of its popularity to the younger age group's increasing agility at working with video and audio tools at home to mimic what television studios and advertising agencies do for hefty fees.

For people like Mr. Ibele, who are relatively obscure professionally, Current is an instant national platform.

"It's an extremely efficient way to get people to see your stuff," said Mr. Ibele, who works as an animator for Make, an animation production company in Minneapolis. "And it's a cool way to get your name out there." (He also received $1,000 as payment for his ad.)

So far, Current has attracted advertisers that reflect its youth-oriented audience, including American Express, General Mills and L'Oréal. Rather than purchase individual commercial time, the network requires most of its advertisers to sign one-year contracts, priced at more than $1 million.

But this is Current's first foray into user-generated advertising. Several marketers have experimented with it in the past, often successfully. Converse solicited homemade videos that depicted Converse owners with their sneakers, which the company turned into ads. The videos became a Internet hit after Converse posted them on conversegallery.com.

JetBlue and MasterCard have also toyed with user-generated content in their advertising. MasterCard has introduced a Web site, priceless.com, where consumers write advertising copy for two commercials, ending with the kicker, "Priceless."

Placed in unsympathetic hands, user-generated content can backfire, however. In March, Chevrolet installed a feature on its Web site that allowed visitors to piece together images and text to create a commercial for its Chevy Tahoe sport utility vehicle. But the feature was quickly seized upon by anti-S.U.V. activists, who made videos condemning the vehicle, its low gas mileage and its impact on the environment.

Working with user-generated content requires restraint on the part of companies that are accustomed to controlling their marketing messages. (Of course, Sony approved Mr. Ibele's finished product before it went on the air.)

Still, the audience for Mr. Ibele's commercial is relatively small, reducing the risk for Sony, said Mike Fasulo, the chief marketing officer for Sony Electronics. Current is available to subscribers of DirecTV, Time Warner Digital and Comcast. By June 1, the network will be in 28 million homes, a spokeswoman said.

Mr. Fasulo said consumers were demanding that marketers allow them to define brands on their own terms.

"The trick is that you have to let go," Mr. Fasulo said. "We're used to dictating our messages and we're used to being in control."

Considering the Current audience, the ad is a relatively consequence-free move for Sony, said Ian Schafer, the chief executive of Deep Focus, a digital entertainment marketing and promotions agency in New York.

"It's safe in that it's advocated by Sony," Mr. Schafer said. "Conversely, you have brands that take opportunities to put content and ad messages in the hands of consumers, and sometimes it goes awry."

In Sony's case, it also required its advertising agencies — McKinney & Silver in Durham, N.C., and Bagby & Company in Chicago — to give up creative control to an enterprising stranger.

"We can scare the agency," Mr. Fasulo said. "That's just fun to do."


Julie Bosman, The New York Times. May 11, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.