Not ready for a Super Bowl spot: Rise of amateur ads

Never mind those $4 million-per-minute Super Bowl commercials honed by ad agency all-stars and approved by corporate chiefs. In an industry built around buzz, the ads humming loudest today are often unauthorized. Even the ad space has gone wackily creative. For example:

• Last month, a Nebraska man auctioned the space on his forehead on eBay. The winning bidder paid him $37,375 to wear a temporary tattoo pitching a snoring remedy. Now, a Florida woman is offering the space on her pregnant belly.

• In London, two aspiring ad men recently made a mock ad that circulated on the Web depicting a Volkswagen Polo as the tool of a would-be car bomber. The car is so tough it absorbs the blast without damaging its surroundings.

• Schoolteacher George Masters produced a slick, animated video spot for his iPod Mini and put it on his website in December. Within days, it scored tens of thousands of viewers and won praise from advertising critics.

This rise in unofficial marketing has companies and ad professionals puzzling over whether to quash or harness the home-based pretenders. Even if the primary aim of amateur admakers is to tout themselves, what's at stake is who plays the lead role in shaping culture.

"The marketing community for many years has built its business model on control," says Steve Rubel, a vice president at New York public-relations firm CooperKatz who also writes a blog called "[But] it's very hard to control the message these days."

"There is a clash between the emerging networked culture and the industrial mass culture that we've lived with for the past several decades," says David Bollier, author of a new book, "Brand Name Bullies," and cofounder of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that represents the public's stake in copyright, technology, and Internet issues.

Mr. Bollier sees a changing social context for ads, one that offers a greater role for consumers "rather than one-way blasts of marketing muscle."

Value added

Sellers can't help tallying the dollar value of all the buzz that attends this bottom-up creative work. Christian de Rivel, chief executive of SnoreStop, acted on his adult daughter's advice in bidding for Andrew Fischer's forehead. His long-term return on the amount he spent?

"Multiply it by 100," he says, taking into account the scope of media coverage he has already received - and the exponential punch of all the pass-along. Mr. Rivel maintains he would have paid twice what he did.

Volkswagen and Apple, however, appear to be wrestling with an appropriate response to the widely viewed ads created on their behalf. The carmaker halted its legal action in recent days and settled with the British admakers after they formally apologized for the ad, which is still being widely circulated over the Internet. Apple did not return calls seeking comment on its plans for handling Mr. Masters - but the ad remains posted online, and Masters confirms in an e-mail that the computermaker has not asked him to take it down.

"The advertising industry ... has to reexamine everything it has done for 100 years," says Barbara Lippert, ad critic at Adweek magazine. Passionate brand fans with big ideas have always flung them at corporate headquarters, she says. "Now regular people have the tools to make ads," and to take them public themselves.

But for sellers accustomed to having all the clout, the issue of slipping creative ownership is complex.

It may be tempting to set loose the lawyers and take a hard line on any unsolicited use of copyrighted materials - blocking well-crafted tributes and dubious parodies alike. "[But] you don't want to be seen as cracking down on your most avid consumers," says Ms. Lippert.

Confusing the message

Other experts note that product positioning had become complicated even before amateur players joined in. Success in new media outlets requires evolving but unified-looking campaigns. Too many voices on behalf of a brand can confuse consumers.

"It's a real problem," says Jack Trout, a veteran marketing consultant at Trout & Partners, in Greenwich, Conn. "And the problem gets bigger the more people see this stuff. It begins to muddy the message." He concludes: "The ad industry should rise up against" amateur ads.

Spokesmen at two of the ad industry's major associations declined to characterize agencies' and their clients' collective take. But the industry might be more inclined to roll with the times.

"The emerging make-your-own culture is not going away any time soon," says Bollier. "The question is what sort of new rapprochement will be negotiated, and which companies will recognize the new realities first and leverage them for competitive advantage."

"They should embrace it," adds Mr. Rubel of CooperKatz. "If they can find these evangelists and reach out to them, there's a tremendous opportunity there.... Give them the keys, and some incentive for bringing in customers. It's really the greatest opportunity [they've] had in years."

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