When I started teaching user-generated advertising (UGA) as an emergent genre of of online video some three years ago, the meanwhile defunct CurrentTV had agencies running scared, by simply applying the idea of crowdsourcing to television commercials. The new format was luring both viewers and advertisers towards innovative modes of producing ads, turning formerly passive consumers into active “produsers” who would do away with fat advertisement budgets and overproduced mega-campaigns. It seemed like a viable idea therefore, to introduce this format into the curriculum of undergraduate business students, both to keep up with techniques of marketing and to test the produser hypothesis.
Having just completed a hands-on seminar on the subject as part of University of St Gallen’s leadership skills program, I find myself wondering. The research students submitted from a survey of the field (and indeed the resulting student-produced clips) indicate a continuity with previous practices and production values rather than a substantial change of viewers’ expecations. User-generated advertisement today refers to large-scale professional productions: Lexus Instafilm, for example, combines 350 shots taken by 212 Instagram users into a stop-motion sequence, Deutsche Telekom’s Million Voices campaign is a social media karaoke production of a popular dance track, and both require considerable creative talent and meticulous pre-production planning.
The executing agencies show a superior understanding of social media marketing dynamics and have obviously managed to retain their established payscale. They are reducing the famed produsers to the exquisitely chosen few (by chance or talent), who function as emotional stand-ins during the actual production with minimal creative involvement in exchange for a maximum of fun associated with brand identification. Turning the production itself into an event might be said to give this kind of social media campaign a caché necessary to involve not just the produsers but established artists previously above such unmitigated selling.
Still, the results are at least innovative and entertaining, something that cannot be said of lesser imitators such as Jung von Matts Tramp-A-Benz campaign, whose idea of sending a fake Mercedes-only hitchhiker/photographer through Europe was chided for lack of originality and transparency. Lufthansa’s casting of the frequent-flyer-next-door challenge “Destination Vielflieger” painfully illustrates the difference between user-generated and amateurish at the low end: the ill-conceived campaign’s final episode attracted all of 3.862 views and is reminiscent of Microsoft’s ill-fated Laptop Hunters as a crude insult to viewers’ intelligence.
These observations on social media and viral campaigns underscore that the resilience of the advertising industry to technological and aesthetic change should not be underestimated, seeing that news of the dying mega-agency-model seem to heave been premature. What the students’ produced this week is perhaps properly called “user-generated content”, since the constraints on time, resources and technology mean the results are created under decidedly non-professional conditions. The task to be solved was a Yogurt-commercial of no more than 90s, to be conceived, written and produced within five days on no more than a 100 CHF budget. These constraints notwithstanding, considerable attempts were made to emulate aesthetic conventions familiar from mainstream television commercials as closely as possible.