"The consumer is in control." We heard these words roll effortlessly off the lips of no less a media maven than Anne Sweeney, Disney Media Networks co-chair, at ABC's upfront. This simple phrase is the prevailing platitude in the media marketplace today.
Advertisers, media companies, and business journalists pay lip service to the notion that the consumers are running the asylum, but we all know that Big Media is still in control. Sure, consumers are surfing networks with remotes, zapping ads, and creating their own program schedules - essentially customized networks - with personal video recorders. But most producers still make shows, and advertisers still create ads, as if we were still living in the salad days of the three-network universe.
If the consumer is really in control, says Howard Rheingold, a guru of the emerging digital age and author of such books as The Virtual Community, then "let the consumers create the ads. Oh, sure, that sounds dangerous. It may be off message, the agency will fret. It could make the wrong promises, the client could worry. It could be offensive, the lawyers will complain. But what else is there?"
Well, there's the new laser-targeted advertising delivered through cable and created by software companies like Visible World. These spots are automatically customized according to demographics and are being touted by advocates as "relevant" advertising. Fox network ad sales honcho Jon Nesvig believes in this technology; he announced a partnership with Visible World at Fox's upfront presentation. Nevertheless, these "relevant" custom spots are, at the moment, limited to primitive direct response-type ads. Rheingold tells us that he sees a solution to the problem in do-it-yourself advertising. He admits this idea is not entirely his own, it's been bubbling up out of the blogosphere, where bloggers are experimenting with Web ads that can be shared with fellow bloggers like jpeg downloads, (giving the first blogger a small cut of the action). Advertisers know where all these ads appear and pay only on performance.
"The real power of this medium is that it is about relationships," Rheingold says, suggesting that bloggers take this ad-share concept one step further and, instead of recycling existing ads from advertisers, make ads for their favorite brands and ask marketers for a commission based on click-throughs.
Can this concept apply to TV?
It's been done. For the youth destination Bolt.com, Bartle Bogle Hegarty once developed a TV campaign that used spots created by the site's users.
And there are others who plan to do it. According to published reports, Al Gore's new startup cable network Current plans to allow the network's audience to create entertainment and ad content.
"Whether it's news or cars or cereal, consumers know what they want better than you, the marketers, do," Rheingold adds. "And if you can't talk directly to consumers... and if your message isn't resonating with them, then let consumers talk to fellow consumers."
Rheingold isn't oblivious to the implications of his model: "The only problem is that the creative department of the agency just went home early. But we can't let that stand in the way of a brave new world. Clients won't. Envision all this another way. Start with advertising nirvana: A consumer who buys your product sells it for you to another consumer, and you the marketer paid nothing to market it. Ok, dream on."
Returning to Anne Sweeney and ABC, the alphabet network distinguished itself not only with the most promising fall slate - one that built upon the momentum of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" - but for having the most forward-thinking approach.
Sweeney was the only network heavyweight at the upfronts to publicly acknowledge the product integration elephant in the room, passing out kudos to ad sales chief Mike Shaw and his team for their deals with General Motors for the Buick LaCrosse in "Desperate Housewives," and for the branded elements of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
She announced that her team was ready to make brand integration deals this year because there is a "need to evolve the viewing experience."
Hank Kim and Richard Linnett are directors of MPG Entertainment. (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)