Chevy Tries a Write-Your-Own-Ad Approach, and the Potshots Fly
By JULIE BOSMAN
Published: April 4, 2006
At first glance, the video looks like a typical 30-second car commercial: a shiny sport utility vehicle careers down a country road lined with sunflower fields, jaunty music playing in the background.
Then, white lettering appears on the screen: “$70 to fill up the tank, which will last less than 400 miles. Chevy Tahoe.”
The commercial is the product of one of the advertising industry’s latest trends: user-generated advertising. On March 13, Chevrolet introduced a Web site allowing visitors to take existing video clips and music, insert their own words and create a customized 30-second commercial for the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe.
In theory, the company was hoping that visitors to its Web site would e-mail their own videos around the Web, generating interest for the Tahoe through what is known as viral marketing. By the measure of Chevrolet Tahoe videos circulating the blogosphere and the video-hosting Web sites like YouTube, that goal was achieved. But the videos that were circulated most widely like the commercial that attacked the S.U.V. for its gas mileage, may not be what Chevrolet had in mind.
Nor was the ad using a sweeping view of the Tahoe driving through a desert. “Our planet’s oil is almost gone,” it said. “You don’t need G.P.S. to see where this road leads.”
Another commercial asked: “Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now. Then say hello to global warming.”
A spokeswoman for Chevrolet, Melisa Tezanos, said the company did not plan to shut down the anti-S.U.V. ads.
“We anticipated that there would be critical submissions,” Ms. Tezanos said. “You do turn over your brand to the public, and we knew that we were going to get some bad with the good. But it’s part of playing in this space.”
Drew Neisser, the president and chief executive at Renegade Marketing, a New York agency specializing in nontraditional marketing that is part of Dentsu, said companies had such a strong desire for user-generated advertising that they were willing to accept the risks. “There’s this gold rush fever about consumer-generated content,” he said. “Everybody wants to have consumer-generated content, and Chevy Tahoe doesn’t want to be left behind.”
The Web site where consumers are invited to make their own commercial, chevyapprentice.com, was introduced as a promotional tie to an episode of “The Apprentice” on NBC that featured the Tahoe in a contestant challenge. Through Monday, visitors to the Web site can submit a video to win a free trip or free tickets to a concert or sporting event.
To create a video, users can choose from video clips depicting the Tahoe in natural settings, like driving through snowy mountain ranges or perched at the edge of a rushing waterfall, pick one of eight soundtracks and add text to narrate the commercial. The site even offered “Director’s Tips,” including “Inform: Deliver the key messaging in a straightforward, concise manner.”
The campaign was created by Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich., part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
User-generated content is a favorite of companies like JetBlue, Sony and Chrysler to reach young, tech-savvy consumers who will spread their marketing messages around the Web.
Mastercard and Converse have successfully experimented with user-generated content. In the latest variation on its “priceless” campaign, Mastercard introduced a Web site, priceless.com, that allows consumers to write advertising copy for two filmed commercials. Visitors to the Web site fill in four lines of dialogue, ending with the kicker, “Priceless.”
A Converse campaign that allowed customers to send in homemade commercials to conversegallery.com worked as intended. It attracted about 1,500 submissions, several that Converse ran on television, and it generated buzz on the Web.
John Butler, creative director for Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, the agency in Sausalito, Calif., that created the Converse campaign, said user-generated content worked only if it fitted the product.
Other companies that have experimented with user-generated content have had less tolerance for mockery.
In 2001, Jonah Peretti, then a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ordered customized Nike sneakers emblazoned with the word “sweatshop,” but Nike denied the request. Mr. Peretti’s lengthy e-mail exchanges with Nike, when leaked onto the Web, became a viral sensation.
Many companies remain hesitant to put creative power in the hands of consumers. At a panel on March 20 during the opening session of the 52nd annual Advertising Research Foundation conference, Dawn E. Hudson, president and chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America, said, “One of the reasons we’re being cautious is there’s a blurring between advertising and content.” After the Chevrolet Tahoe ads began widely circulating on Friday, some bloggers were jubilant at successfully mocking the efforts of a large corporation.
A blogger called Polyester Bride posted an item yesterday titled, “I am so totally the next Chevy marketing exec!” next to a link to her version of the Chevrolet ad. But the industry blog Adrants wrote on Sunday that Chevrolet may have been expecting that very reaction.
“We think there are some voices inside G.M. that understand social media very well and knew this would happen,” the post said.
Mr. Neisser of Renegade said Chevrolet could have anticipated the way the Web site was manipulated. “Were they really expecting the consumer to make nice and create very pleasant movies?” he asked. “If they were, they haven’t looked at anything on YouTube.”