What Makes 'Citizen Ads' Work

This column requires ground rules in order to avoid hurting your eyeballs. Therefore, instead of the excruciating "consumer-generated advertising" and "consumer-generated marketing," I will use "citizen advertising" and "citizen marketing." In varying ways, all manner of companies solicit or encourage such efforts on the Web. As evidenced by two highly publicized Doritos ads that ran during the Super Bowl, these efforts sometimes cross media platforms to show up on TV screens.

The arguments for citizen ads encompass every current marketing cliché. A company invites consumers to submit ads to its Web site, which means said consumers spend much time thinking about the product (marketing cliché alert: engagement, interacting with the brand). These ads are shown online to let the public chatter and vote on which is best (cliché alert: community). That the ads come from the vox-pop ensures they are (cliché alert) authentic. With luck, what consumers submit is good enough to stand out from the omnipresent ambient marketing noise (cliché alert: breaking through the clutter). And good enough so people come back to the site for more. Also, lest we forget: Letting consumers do the work is cheap. While citizens' efforts are nascent, making it impossible to know how effective they are long-term, early blog buzz on Doritos' Super Bowl ads is easily as positive as what some traditional ads elicited.

Not every company has wild-eyed devotees. So thus far, citizen ads mostly push products that people adore—Chevy asked fans to submit ideas for its Super Bowl spot—or those that target young men, like Doritos. The people who create them have already joined the fan club and bought the T-shirt (or they're so rabid they make their own). There's a reason why the National Football League asked fans to submit Super Bowl ad ideas. Football freaks get very geeked-out about their sport, as do those who post homemade Apple ads to YouTube.

AND THERE'S A REASON WHY CLOROX (CLX ) hasn't asked for ideas. Many big advertisers sell commodities—soap powder, paper goods—that lack logos people tattoo on their torsos or paint on their faces. Many big budgets push products with very specific demands. For example, yogurt maker Dannon's (DA ) marketing strategy dictates that ads must help maintain consistent demand for a perishable product. Yogurt is "live and active," says Chief Marketing Officer Andreas Ostermayr. "We cannot keep huge stocks of it." He fears that citizen ads will elicit a "less predictable" response from consumers.

Wary, too, are some top ad executives. "We are pros, and although it looks easy to create advertising, it isn't," writes Wayne Best, executive creative director of New York boutique agency TAXI, in an e-mail. "User-generated content reminds me that there's a reason I have a job." But I have little patience for arguments equating "pro" with "better." History is full of examples where "pro" turns out to be an artificial construct. (The music and film indie revolutions of the '80s taught us there was more and better talent than the major labels and studios would have had us believe.) Without all the hype, I doubt viewers would have known Doritos' ads were not made by an agency.

Many companies that hire ad firms get this. ("Agencies beware," exulted a Sony (SNE ) executive in Advertising Age, in discussing one citizen ad contest.) What they don't get is that not every product engenders fanaticism: I spent much time on the phone last week arguing with marketers about whether or not consumers get excited about soap. I should be sporting and point out that in places where citizen ads may not work, citizen marketing may well. In 2001, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ ) bought babycenter.com, a wildly popular community site for new parents. J&J opted, in other words, not to build a site about baby powder. Detergent buyers might not make ads for fun like Apple freaks do. Hanging out at a marketer's getitclean.com site? Well, that's a whole other story.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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