Advertising On-Demand

When Burger King was looking for an edgy way to promote itself among the coveted (nay, fetishized) young male demographic, it did the only thing a sensible old fart of a corporate entity can do when it struggles to be hip: it handed the camera to someone who really is, well, hip. BK's marketing partner, the pioneering broadband entertainment site, sent plastic BK King masks to some of its regular indie contributors and told them to create their own videos. The results were hilarious. In one spot, the King tries to order a Whopper at a McDonald's drive-thru. No ad executive, no matter how "edgy" would have dared turn such guerilla brand warfare into an ad spot, but a fearless indie vidcam jockey would. The results were phenomenal: over 3.5 million downloads or streams of the set of ads.

What the BK campaign demonstrates is nothing less than the first fault line in a tectonic shift away from the ad model that dominated mass media in the last century. Until now, advertising used content as a way of locating and luring the right audience. It bolted to that content: well crafted, resolutely inoffensive but persuasive product pitches and brand messages. Advertisers (deliberately) interrupted the content a user really wanted to see with this less interesting message, which the relatively captive and passive audience consumed reluctantly but quietly. In the BK model, users (or indie videographers who were a lot like the users) not only made ads but also made them at least as entertaining as the other content around it. Even more importantly, users sought out ads. This is not only user-generated advertising; this is on-demand advertising.

The new media mantra is that the user is increasingly in control. From TiVo time shifting to podcast place shifting, from on-demand broadband media to RSS feeds, the push model of traditional broadcasting is dissolving into a pull model. At the same time, the traditional guides and directories, media programmers, and editors-in-chief who helped nudge consumers into the path of this push-media economy are also being replaced by recommendation engines. Through email forwarding, shared playlists, and user-rankings, peer networks help us "discover" the media we most likely want. I like that "discovery" might replace "consumption." We are media explorers now, not mere consumers.

Whether this new proactive posture for media users (I mean explorers) is real or imagined, it most certainly begs for new types of advertising. The BK campaign is just one sign that brands are seeing this one coming. Still hovering beneath industry radar is podcast advertising, one of the genuinely novel arenas for brand message experimentation. Audio networks PodShow and PodTrac both use what some call the new "talking points model." In this format, the sponsor lets homegrown podcasters create their own in-show ads from a series of talking points about the relevant product or brand. In some cases the podcaster may deliver a straight spot for the advertisers at some point of his or her choosing in the show, while other hosts might go off on irreverent riffs. Podcasters often discuss why a particular product is underwriting the show, or the hosts will banter about it. In one case, a smartass podcaster started goofing on the brand's name, but the audience loved it, and the sponsor got a very positive response.

The forward thinking (but too few) advertisers who are embracing this user-generated ad format appreciate that their products take on the personality and voice of the host, becoming part of the spirit of the show itself. What these marketers intuit, if not realize consciously, is that media are shifting from a content-centric to an audience-centric model. Traditionally, advertisers want to ally themselves with the content people love, to be the "proud sponsor" of this awards show or that marquee sitcom or sporting event.

But as people pick and choose, pull and make their own content, as they become the programmers, as media becomes less about formal content and more about that audience, we have to wonder: Who are these people? Where are they? How can I as a sponsor ally myself with them, not just cozy up to the content they crave? A user-generated format like podcast talking points makes the brand look and sound just like the people it is targeting. It speaks directly to the audience, in its own image and voice.

This can be tremendously powerful stuff, but for content makers, a user-generated ad model poses one of those interesting challenges/opportunities. Does it diminish the traditional role we play in mediating the relationship between sponsor and audience, or does it empower content providers to take the lead and be innovators of user-generated, on-demand advertising? I hope the latter, though it really does require that publishers start thinking hard about how to incorporate audiences more effectively into ad formats themselves. Just as users now want to see themselves in your content (via blogs, comments, forums), they are going to want to see themselves in the advertising as well.