The High Price of Creating Free Ads
From an advertiser’s perspective, it sounds so easy: invite the public to create commercials for your brand, hold a contest to pick the best one and sit back while average Americans do the creative work.
But look at the videos H. J. Heinz is getting on YouTube.
In one of them, a teenage boy rubs ketchup over his face like acne cream, then puts pickles on his eyes. One contestant chugs ketchup straight from the bottle, while another brushes his teeth, washes his hair and shaves his face with Heinz’s product. Often the ketchup looks more like blood than a condiment.
|Heinz Top This TV Challenge|
Entry #138: Dan's Heinz Commercial
Heinz has said it will pick five of the entries and show them on television, though it has not committed to a channel or a time slot. One winner will get $57,000. But so far it’s safe to say that none of the entries has quite the resonance of, say, the classic Carly Simon “Anticipation” ad where the ketchup creeps oh-so-slowly out of the bottle.
Consumer brand companies have been busy introducing campaigns like Heinz’s that rely on user-generated content, an approach that combines the populist appeal of reality television with the old-fashioned gimmick of a sweepstakes to select a new advertising jingle. Pepsi, Jeep, Dove and Sprint have all staged promotions of this sort, as has Doritos, which proudly publicized in February that the consumers who made one of its Super Bowl ad did so on a $12 budget.
But these companies have found that inviting consumers to create their advertising is often more stressful, costly and time-consuming than just rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves. Many entries are mediocre, if not downright bad, and sifting through them requires full-time attention. And even the most well-known brands often spend millions of dollars up front to get the word out to consumers.
Meanwhile, some people have been using the contests as an opportunity to scrawl digital graffiti on the sponsor and its brand. Rejected Heinz submissions have been showing up on YouTube anyway, and visitors to Heinz’s page on the site have written that the ketchup maker is clearly looking for “cheap labor” and that Heinz is “lazy” to ask consumers to do its marketing work.
“That’s kind of a popular misnomer that, somehow, it’s cheaper to do this,” said David Ciesinski, vice president for Heinz Ketchup. “On the contrary, it’s at least as expensive, if not more.”
Heinz has hired an outside promotions firm to watch all the videos and forward questionable ones to Heinz employees in its Pittsburgh headquarters. So far, they have rejected more than 370 submissions (at least 320 remain posted on YouTube). The gross-out factor is not among their screening criteria — rather, most of the failed entries were longer than the 30-second time limit, entirely irrelevant to the contest or included songs protected by copyright. Some of the videos displayed brands other than Heinz (a big no-no) or were rejected because “they wouldn’t be appropriate to show mom,” said Mr. Ciesinski.
Heinz hopes to air more than five of them, if there are enough that convey a positive, appealing message about Heinz ketchup, he said. But advertising executives who have seen some of the entries say that Heinz may be hard pressed to find any that they are proud to run on television in September.
“These are just so bad,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive of the Kaplan Thaler Group, an advertising agency in New York that is not involved with Heinz’s contest.
One of the most viewed Heinz videos — seen, at last count, more than 12,800 times — ends with a close-up of a mouth with crooked, yellowed teeth. When Ms. Kaplan Thaler saw it, she wondered, “Were his teeth the result of, maybe, too much Heinz?”
|Heinz Top This TV Challenge|
Entry #4: My Entry For The Heinz Commercial Contest
Scott Goodson, chief executive of StrawberryFrog, an advertising agency based in New York, said the shortcomings of contest entries — not just those for Heinz — refuted predictions that user-generated content might siphon work away from agencies. “This Heinz campaign, much like the same ones done by Doritos, Converse and Dodge, only goes to show how hard it is to do great advertising,” he said.
In a traditional ad campaign, a client like Heinz will meet with its advertising agencies to come up with a central idea, often a tagline like MasterCard’s “Priceless.” The creative departments then design the ads while the media planners figure out where they should run. Except for the occasional focus group, consumers are largely on the receiving end.
In campaigns that solicit work from the public, the model appears to be quite different — consumers, after all, create the ads. But, in reality, ad agencies and brand marketers are still doing much of the legwork. Heinz and Doritos spent months planning their user-generated contests, hiring lawyers to vet them and designing advertisements to promote them. Then they assigned employees to wade through entries.
“These contests have nothing to do with cost-savings,” said Jared Dougherty, a spokesman for Frito-Lay, the division of PepsiCo that owns the Doritos brand.
While the winners of the Doritos contest may have only spent $12, Doritos spent about $1.3 million on advertising in October, according to estimates from Nielsen Monitor-Plus. And that was when it was promoting the contest, which invited people to create a 30-second commercial that would run during the Super Bowl. Doritos received 1,020 videos and awarded prizes of $10,000 to five finalists.
And then Doritos spent more than $8 million on advertising in February when it aired the top five commercials, more than any month in the last two years, according Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
Other companies are also spending handsomely to present user-generated content to the public. Last Tuesday, KFC aired a commercial during “American Idol” that consisted entirely of clips about KFC that consumers had posted on the Internet — even without a contest. Heinz, too, says that customers have been making videos starring its bottle long before its contest and posting them on sites like YouTube.
Heinz has run ads for its contest during “American Idol” and other television shows (as well as in large newspapers like The New York Times), but it has gone a step further: it has converted all the labels on its bottles and ketchup packets into ads for the contest. This was a major initiative that involved everything from building new industrial printing plates to timing the shipment of bottles so they would appear on shelves at the beginning of May, said Mr. Ciesinski of Heinz.
And for all of Heinz’s effort, the interests of many of the contestants lie far outside its own. Steve Sass, 48, who taped two Heinz commercials, is running for president as a write-in candidate. Ed Barry, 34, writes sketches about a character named Vinny and is trying to get his work noticed. Some contestants say in interviews that they prefer mustard or mayonnaise.
Michelle Cale, a 39-year-old Web designer in Morgantown, W.Va., has a more traditional motive. “It is a substantial sum of money, which, of course, caught my eye,” she said.
In one of Ms. Cale’s two Heinz videos, after dropping her children at school, she spends the day playing with a bottle of ketchup at the park. As she pushes the bottle on a swing as if it were a child, she proclaims, “you mean so much to me.” Then she pours ketchup on a juicy hamburger to eat it.
|Heinz Top This TV Challenge|
Entry #28: I Can Always Count On You Heinz Ketchup!
Then there is Dan Burke, who brushed his teeth and shaved with ketchup, and said he hoped the vulgarity would help his video stand out. A 20-year-old college student in Centerville, Ohio, Mr. Burke wants to win and to use the prize money to attend a two-year training program in wrestling.
He described his strategy: “I just thought to myself, ‘What is the single strangest thing I can do with ketchup?’ ”