May 26th, 2007

User-Generated Content Is Not A Panacea


The Infinite Monkey Theorem (which now has an official name, thanks to Wikipedia) states that given an infinite amount of time, a monkey banging on a typewriter will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. I suppose Wikipedia has proven this true for encyclopedias, but advertising agencies that have open-sourced the ad creation process to consumers have found that they may not have the time to wait for those monkeys to create the next Clio award-winning ad, much less an ad that doesn’t suck (via NYT):

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.

Here’s an example of a user who generated some content for Heinz:


This video is actually kind of funny if you are connoisseur of the intentionally lame slapstick YouTube aesthetic, but probably not ready for prime time. You may be wondering why I didn’t just embed the video here for your enjoyment — well, that would be because they turned that feature off. Heinz wouldn’t want users running off with their content, would they? That’s because the user really isn’t in control.


Turns out the Heinz videos all coexist on standard YouTube pages with the embed feature enabled — it’s just disabled on the Heinz branded page. You have to click on the video title from the Heinz page to break free of the controlled brand environment and return to the user-in-control YouTube environment. So here it is for your enjoyment:

Here’s the thing about user-generated content (other than it being on the face of it one of the dumbest buzzwords ever) — users are people, and people vary wildly in their talent. Heinz may end up with a brilliant commercial that they might not otherwise have discovered, because there are some brilliant people who are aspiring video content producers but who don’t currently work for a big ad agency. Open platforms like YouTube have certainly make talent discovery a more open and “democratic” process, which may indeed reduce the amount of undiscovered t

  • As the Linux lot say, it's only free if you put no value on your time....

  • "have you seen the Ketchup groups on MySpace and Facebook?"


    Seth, I'm sure you're right, that Heinz has probably already received a few overtures from people professing to be able to show them how to 'do it right'.

    Here's the thing, sometimes a contest is just a contest.

    And it looks like a success in terms of the buzz it's generated (it's gotten us talking about Heinz ketchup right here on this blog) and the fun people have had in participating in it.

  • hrm. i'm not so sure it's really making evangelists of these "crowds" as it is spreading the word -- virally.

    for every single person who makes a commercial, there are 10 that don't. and EVERY SINGLE ONE of these people talk about the idea to someone.

    maybe they sit around and brainstorm with their friends. maybe they actually make a commercial. maybe they keep talking about the time they had an idea for a heinz commercial.

    sure, it's all about the content and not necessarily the brand, but, the brand is inextricably tied to the content and the creators urge to create.

    whether they are talking about:
    1) the money they'd win
    2) a cool idea they had
    3) the fact that they made one and are foisting it on every single person they see.

    in every single one of those conversations, the brand -- heinz, will be mentioned.

    enough to be worth $57k? hell yeah. look at the response they've had so far. they might even get a decent commercial out of the gig too.

    which, when it aired denoted as a "fan commercial" would start the whole conversation thing (points 1, 2, and 3 above) all over again. possibly with a larger, more mainstream audience depending on when they air it.

    any way you slice it, it's all good for heinz -- "quality" commercial or not.


  • Stephen,

    Yes, I understand it's "all about COMMUNITY," yadda, yadda. Plenty of Kool-aid here.

    My point was not to overlook the value of community, especially around deep passions like ketchup (have you seen the Ketchup groups on MySpace and Facebook?), but rather that it's just as hard to get high qualtity content from user-generated as it is from traditional means, even if that happens to be a secondary objective.

    Also, if it's all about "Coummunity," why did Heinz disable the community features like comments and the embed link on their YouTube site? Somehow the hype doesn't always live up to the practice.

    But no worries -- drink up. Next round of Community-Aid is on me.

  • Scott, as others here mention, you seem to have missed the point that crowdsourcing of content as Heinz has done here is less about trying to get an ad made on the cheap (although that may be a benefit) and more about connecting with a community that are passionate about your product.

    It's these "sneezers" (to quote Seth Godin) or Connectors (to use Malcolm Gladwell's near-equivalent) that will adopt new versions of your product early in the piece and get the message out to the next wave. It doesn't so much matter that the crap-t0-gold ratio of what they produce is high. It's that they are producing and in doing so, also communicating their passion to their circle and so on outwards.

    It's the social in "social computing". All about people. All about community. All about collaboration.

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