User-generated ads = crap

May 29, 2007 by Dave Haynes

I have never quite understood the fuss about user-generated ads and content being a substantial piece of the puzzle for digital signage or media in general.

A New York Times piece from the weekend, called the High Price of Creating Free Ads, backed up my general suspicion that the vast majority of the work done by the Great Unwashed of our nations will look like crap.

Consumer brand companies have been busy introducing campaigns like Heinz’s that rely on user-generated content, an approach that combines the populist appeal of reality television with the old-fashioned gimmick of a sweepstakes to select a new advertising jingle. Pepsi, Jeep, Dove and Sprint have all staged promotions of this sort, as has Doritos, which proudly publicized in February that the consumers who made one of its Super Bowl ad did so on a $12 budget.

But these companies have found that inviting consumers to create their advertising is often more stressful, costly and time-consuming than just rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves. Many entries are mediocre, if not downright bad, and sifting through them requires full-time attention. And even the most well-known brands often spend millions of dollars upfront to get the word out to consumers.

Some people, meanwhile, have been using the contests as an opportunity to scrawl digital graffiti on the sponsor and its brand. Rejected Heinz submissions have been showing up on YouTube anyway, and visitors to Heinz’s page on the site have written that the ketchup maker is clearly looking for “cheap labor” and that Heinz is “lazy” to ask consumers to do its marketing work.

“That’s kind of a popular misnomer that, somehow, it’s cheaper to do this,” said David Ciesinski, vice president for Heinz Ketchup. “On the contrary, it’s at least as expensive, if not more.”

Heinz has hired an outside promotions firm to watch all the videos and forward questionable ones to Heinz employees in its Pittsburgh headquarters. So far, they have rejected more than 370 submissions (at least 320 remain posted on YouTube). The gross-out factor is not among their screening criteria – rather, most of the failed entries were longer than the 30-second time limit, entirely irrelevant to the contest or included songs protected by copyright. Some of the videos displayed brands other than Heinz (a big no-no) or were rejected because “they wouldn’t be appropriate to show mom,” Mr. Ciesinski said.

Heinz hopes to show more than five of them, if there are enough that convey a positive, appealing message about Heinz ketchup, he said. But advertising executives who have seen some of the entries say that Heinz may be hard pressed to find any that it is proud to run on television in September.

“These are just so bad,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive of the Kaplan Thaler Group, an advertising agency in New York that is not involved with Heinz’s contest.

I read recently about how KFC’s agency put together a piece with user-generated content, but what they’d actually done was sort through endless hours of stuff that has been posted online and and then stitched together a rapid-cut piece that got the desired message across during American Idol. So all they did was use YouTube as their content library and then sought approval from the “talent”. Arguably, there was a cost-saving on production and on the pay they didn’t hand over  to actors and production crews.

There will be the day when somebody submitting to these contests (who isn’t an agency or film school grad in disguise), serves up a little bit of brilliance. But there will be mountains of crap piled up before that moment.

  1. Ian says:

    As a person IN the business of advertising creative development, the thought that ‘anybody’ can produce advertising is rather insulting. User-generated journalism, while sometimes quite effective (Think Huffington Post), most is Junk. The best researched, verifiable news is from a journalistic source, with resources, editors and… hold on… PROFESSIONALS.

    I have another idea:

    User Generated Surgery
    goto and save 100,000 on bypass surgery. 🙂

    Media consumers are too savvy to accept crap… I hope.

  2. Stephen says:

    Agencies of record looking to use user generated content without fully understanding and anticipating all the implications can be a recipe for disaster. Remember that incident in Boston earlier this year when the guerrilla signs backfired into a PR mess?

    If done right it can work, and the upside of a good campaign started this way can be pervasive, but buyer (i.e., brand) beware.

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