The Consumer: Application Nation

  • by June 22, 2006

Is there anyone in media, advertising, or marketing who hasn't heard of Burger King's Subservient Chicken? Is there anyone who hasn't marveled both at the cojones of the client who approved the idea and the genius of the team who had the idea in the first place? A simple but deliciously entertaining little software application, it demanded to be sampled at least once. I know we've thought about it a lot down here at The Brooklyn Brothers, and it led us to wonder, in classic Carrie Bradshaw fashion: Are applications the new advertising?

They're certainly popular among consumers. Anything that lets people take part in their own entertainment seems to be hot at the moment.

This season of "American Idol" was a classic illustration. That chipper rascal Ryan Seacrest proudly boasted that with more than 63 million votes cast through a simple SMS-based voting application, "Idol" performed better than any president in history. The ratings were impressive enough, but 63 million votes is a big number.

What's most notable about that big number is that it reflects an active engagement with the show. It is a measure of the number of people so caught up in the event that they wanted to contribute to the outcome. They wanted their voice to be heard. They weren't content to just sit there passively and be entertained. They wanted to be part of the conversation, and by being part of the conversation they were enjoying the experience even more.

Companies like YouTube,, and iFilm are also benefiting from applications that let consumers take part in their own entertainment. They're drawing huge audiences of people who create pieces of broadcast entertainment and make them available to be watched by millions. Over time, they'll become active and viable competitors with the traditional broadcast networks.

What their success has demonstrated is that when people are given the opportunity to be involved, they will actively take part. They'll seek out and engage with the content. They'll recommend it to their friends and colleagues. They'll even act as distributors. But they'll just as quickly tune out and switch off if they are bored, or if they feel like too much of their valuable time is being taken up with advertising pitches from companies they don't care about.

People don't want to be broadcast to  they want to be involved in the entertainment. They want to vote on "American Idol" (and they want a behind-the-scenes look at the people they are voting for to make sure the wool isn't being pulled over their eyes). They want to upload their own movies on YouTube  and they want to hear back from people who've watched them. In short, they want to be invited into a conversation.

It's getting easier all the time to bring consumers into a conversation. Simple computer applications can allow for a creative exchange between a brand and a user. But with the notable exception of BK's Subservient Chicken and a select few other examples, advertising has been slow to latch on to the ability to use applications to create an exchange between a brand and a potential customer.

Advertising has long been a one-way street: A marketer decides what they want to say, and they say it as loudly as their budget will allow. In the past there's been little room for conversation about the brand; it's been a one-sided relationship built around the unwritten contract that says, "If you want to watch shows on TV, then you have to watch my advertising." Only now you don't. Technology has broken the contract. And one-way streets aren't going to see much traffic in the future.

It seems a given that the inmates have taken over the asylum. We've all accepted that newly empowered consumers are taking control of their engagement with media and content. Even if the digital video recorder hasn't yet reached critical mass, it feels more and more like it's only a matter of time before it reaches a tipping point of acceptance. People want control over what they see and when they see it.

Already, the best advertising online is application-based. (It's surprising, actually, that more online advertising isn't created to draw people into an exchange of ideas.) But soon enough, the dumb terminal that is our TV is going to become a capable computing platform, and when that happens, applications that allow for interaction, conversation, and the exchange of ideas will become the new advertising. We'd better start practicing.

Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (

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