The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is in. I hate when this happens. I am not a men's mag reader, but when media events and mobile tie-ins like the SI bikini bash occur, this particular issue ends up on the coffee table. Let the games begin.
"Do you think she's pretty?"
"Honey, I am 51. If I don't know by now how to wriggle out from the most basic man-trap question in the book, then frankly you shouldn't even be with me. I thought we were into much more Edward Albee-ish head trips than this by now." For those playing at home, the upper levels of the "do you think she is pretty" game actually involve emphasis. I believe that if your mate puts the stress on "she" in this poisoned interrogative, then it is an outright dare to compare the cheesecake shot with her.
In this playing of the classic version, most blunt male-oafish "yes" or "no" answers will find you checkmated in two moves. If the stress is on the "pretty," then we are playing by professional rules. There is an opening here for a few moments of honest discussion of beauty, women, and men's tastes. But ultimately you will go down; it just takes longer. I usually parry with "Models are bland. You know I like women with character" -- or, "You've got it all over her, hon." And then I throw in a "You would wear that suit better than she does."
It's that last part she doesn't see coming. "Then why are you taking pictures of the pages?" she asks.
Doh! Now, I'm playing the bush-league game. "Um, research. Really. I am writing a column?" Funny how you can spend almost three decades teaching and writing about pop culture -- and having had to invoke this rationale legitimately so many times. Yet I still can't make it sound legit.
Worse than phone-camming SI models, of course I was shooting 2D scan coded images from JagTag, about half a dozen of which were in this issue. Several magazines will be revisiting the 2D code model this season. SI's plan is more ambitious than most, in that the codes are leveraging MMS rather than requiring an app download or (worse) emailing the image to the vendor. JagTag tells me that its MMS solution is giving it much broader coverage. Previous tests have shown that the MMS approach pulls in an audience of 22% smart phone users and 78% feature phone users.
Magazines have been down this path towards cell phone "mobilization" before, and anything that smoothes the path and widens reach is welcome. Early player Mobot used its visual search technology years ago on Jane and ELLEgirl, so you could snap images, email them in and get some sort of WAP link in returns. More recently, the smart phone apps have made it possible to use dedicated reader software. The process continues to feel gimmicky because it is not ubiquitous and it seems clumsy. And, frankly, taking a picture of a magazine page always feels a bit like surreptitiously snapping documents with a microfilm pocket camera in an old spy movie.
To use a tech geek-term, the awkward activity of using the phone as a scanner in the real world is "non-trivial." The friction points are small but important. Sitting near a lamp with a magazine on your lap introduces a range of little issues, from angle of view to focus distance, shadows over the scan code to basic lighting.
This is not a whine over little things. This sort of thing should matter to marketers who want to buy into this format. Remember the old online Web design adage that you can count on losing half of your audience for every click an interactive task requires.
My frustration with the scan-code model has always been that people should never have to work for their media. If you lose half your audience for every click, then what share of a mags readership wants to pull their phone out, snap and send an image? Let's stop kidding ourselves that this is simple "interaction." It is more than that. It is a multistep process that is interruptive. Whether it is leaning back and watching TV or flipping pages in a magazine or even clicking Web pages, media consumption and even interaction generally requires little physical movement (gaming excepted), and introducing tasks to the process is breaking the flow of the media experience. And besides that, it still feels a little silly.
To its credit, Jagtag is trying to address some of the kludginess of 2D codes. In addition to the MMS approach, the SI codes themselves have a bikini-clad girl in silhouette amid the freaky dots that carry the necessary information. They are somewhat better than the really unattractive QR codes.
But like text prompts of several years ago, these codes require explanation, so they are surrounded by instructions on where to text the image. Again, you gotta work for your media.
There are also limitations to Verizon, AT&T and Alltel networks, and then a back-up email address for all others to send the code image. Silly me, I thought that Apple iPhone was on AT&T (the monthly bill seemed a tip-off) but I got back one of the strangest error messages imaginable: "Hi. Some iPhones are experiencing difficulty receiving MMS. If you do not receive video shortly, try emailing picture to si@jagtag." Now there is a message that raises more questions than it answers. Is my iPhone (or all iPhones) having the problem, or is AT&T having the problem? Will I ever get MMS?
Verizon was up to it, and the DROID gathered up all six or so of the videos. So the good news is that combining MMS with scan codes takes away considerable friction. The in-book prompts promise "bonus videos" of the model, which is a way to deliver those extras to a much wider range of feature phones than 2D programs that require app downloads. It also circumvents the data channel -- also good for phones without data plans.
The downside is that MMS across such a range of phones also imposes severe limits on the video assets. The SI Swimsuit videos were all familiar teaser clips with rapid fire cuts among bikini models that added up to 18 seconds of unremarkable cheesecake.
Jagtag tells me that the MMS could be used to offer a WAP link that would give you longer video, but that generally they have about 18-30 seconds to work with in the MMS box. They chose to keep the video shorter but increase the quality if the handset can handle it.
OK, but it took me longer to activate this experience than it did to actually, well, experience it. Was this another "look what my phone can do" marketing campaign, or did they think I would treasure 18 seconds of bikini bliss? There is still a serious value exchange imbalance in most of these mobile marketing campaigns. Perhaps if it had been funny, or the model had spoken to me, I would feel the value. I know. I am old.
While the SI Swimsuit MMS component made me feel more like an unwitting accomplice in someone else's marketing experiment, I was stuck by the effectiveness of the sponsorship. All of the MMS videos were short enough so that a post-roll slide of sponsor Trojan Ecstasy condoms was unmistakable.
The challenge for MMS video is to make something worthwhile and with pass-along value. If you can execute that piece, then the platform has great ad potential. Pasting a sponsor image at the end of a short but welcome MMS video is impactful. It doesn't get in the way of the content and there is no opportunity or reason to bail on the video because a pre-roll is bugging me. This can be a very cool way for a print magazine to extend its advertisers' reach into digital platforms.
But be careful what you leave on your phone -- specially if you have a daughter who covets the DROID, steals it at every opportunity -- and loves to make trouble.
She yells to my partner, "Hey did you see this? What is Dad doing with condom ads on his phone?"
Next year I am handing off the Swimsuit Issue stories to one of the young guys at MediaPost. In so many ways I am too old for that beat.