User-Generated Content Won't Displace Madison Avenue Anytime Soon

Many people see ads and think they could do better. According to the New York Times, no, they can’t. The Times is following the struggle of H.J. Heinz to find five user-generated ads to air on TV sometime this September. Companies like Heinz are discovering that user-generated content doesn’t save time or money. For the foreseeable future, Madison Avenue will be responsible for creating the ads we love to hate.

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.

We prefer YouTube’s user-generated content to the schmaltz spewing from Madison Avenue. What do you think: is the content really worse, or are companies unwilling to step away from their comfort zones? Tell us in the comments. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

The High Price of Creating Free Ads [NYT]
Top This TV [YouTube]
(Photo: cloudzilla)

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  1. SOhp101 says:

    I can’t even remember the last time I saw a ketchup ad, but I can imagine this to be true since most people say ‘i can make a way better commercial than that’ when it comes to those half baked ads that makes everyone throw up just a little bit.

    I can easily think up of a great series for ketchup ads but if Heinz wants to know about it then they have to pay me for it ;)

  2. Kashell says:

    I imagine what the businesses imagine for a good ad must be very different than what the average consumer must imagine for a good ad.

  3. Ben Thoma says:

    User-generated ads are a gimmick and have jumped the shark.

    Great advertising usually doesn’t reach consumers because of fears within ad agencies or their clients (usually it’s the latter, but I’m biased). User-generated content is subject to this same fear, and most of the spots you see on YouTube are not endorsed by clients.

    For those “ordinary Joe’s” who say they can make a better ad, I say: so could most ad agencies…but that doesn’t mean that a client will pay for it to see the light of day.

    For example: this Dr. Marten’s story.

  4. David_Marcoe says:

    User submitted content is great when you’re bored–good for a laugh or a “come look at this”–but there is also a reason that most user content is short; it can’t hold your attention beyond two or three minutes. I wouldn’t want it to replace the professionally produced content with a carefully paced narrative structure and well produced presentation.

    Of course, such content would seem perfect for a thirty second ad, right? Wrong. The majority of “good” user content is merely a captured moment or clever use of spectacle that isn’t defendant on production values. It doesn’t have to communicate a specific message and it doesn’t have to make you remember it.

    The ads that Madison Avenue look for have to do three things. It has to tell you about the product or service, it has to stand out from everything else, and it has to make you remember it. Now sometimes, that aligns with the consumer’s idea of a good ad, where it is funny, entertaining, or thought provoking, but often their idea of a “good” ad may mean that it is annoying or plain weird. They just need it to lodge the product in your head. The consumer may be able to think of a funnier or less annoying scenario, but that doesn’t mean come up with a better delivery for the product, or even produce one.

    That all being said, I think advertisers have become so convinced of their brilliance that they go through the process of measuring, calibrating, and focus-grouping their content without bothering to take a step back and look at it as how a consumer would. The cleverest ads I can think of are straightforward in their delivery and artistic in their execution. They don’t seek to be “edgy”, “postmodern”, or clever. They just don’t insult the intelligence of the consumer.

  5. lemur says:

    For every instance of good to great user-generated content you can find, there’s a gazillion instances of crappy user-generated content. The average Joe out there seriously underestimates how hard it is to generate good content. In the age of American Idol everybody can be a star, right? Hmm… I don’t think so.

    I’m really not surprised Madison Avenue is going to stick to traditional methods of generating ads since the proposed alternative of user-generated content does not look so good to me. I find the stuff on YouTube sometimes entertaining but it is rarely great.

  6. j-o-h-n says:

    It’s KETCHUP fergawdsakes!

    Either you like how it tastes or you don’t!

    No amount of advertising, no matter how clever is going to make me think that your ketchup is going to make me sexier, righer or smarter. It won’t even convince me to try it.

    Their money would be better spent sending free bottles to young families in the hopes that some of them would like it (better than their current brand).

  7. AcidReign says:

    …..We vastly prefer Hunt’s ketchup in this house. Anyone remember the old Heinz “Anticipation” commercials? No one in this day and age likes the thick sludge that takes forever to pour out of the bottle…

  8. Sudonum says:

    @AcidReign: squeeze bottles

  9. hoo_foot says:

    People actually watch the user-generated content on Youtube? The only material worth watching on Youtube is copyrighted.

  10. bombaxstar says:

    Aww, that picture.

  11. y2mama says:

    I think Apple’s advertising shows how professional, expensive marketing can really work. And that marketing has successfully branded Apple as kinda anti-corporate/individualistic/fun, which is just the effect that companies try to achieve by using user-generated content.

  12. lestat730 says:

    Since when has Ketchup needed any advertising at all? It’s just one of those things people go to the store and buy. Not to mention all the free advertising Heinz gets by having their ketchup bottles in almost every restaurant I’ve been to in the US (that has burgers, cheesesteaks, etc..)

  13. JustThisGuy says:

    I was once a cog in the giant, soul-crushing behemoth that is Madison Ave; I hated my job with a passion, and I’m glad I’m no longer in the industry. However, I have to say that user-generated will almost always be sub-par and near-unwatchable. Very few people can just “pick up” the essentials design, composition, and effective copy writing, and even fewer can learn to focus within the very specific constraints of your typical ad spot. Just because you’ve seen a bad movie doesn’t mean you can actually create a better flick, and just because you’ve read piss-poor books does not mean you can write a good novel; I don’t understand why some people think they can create an effective commercial just because they’ve seen poor ones.

    However, I will admit that these same people are perfectly capable of directing unwatchable movies, writing horrid prose, and creating crap commercials. That said, the absolute worst mad ave spot will always be infinitely better than the worst consumer-generated ad, just as the very best mad ave commercials will always be much, much better than the best user-generated content.

  14. GitEmSteveDave says:

    The only ketchup I really liked was made by Heinz and was garlic flavored. It was kick ass. But of course, they stopped making it. But I agree that ketchup is ketchup to a degree. Commercials don’t make me want to buy it. In-store sales and lack of ketchup in my fridge are the two biggest motivators.

  15. s00p3rm4n says:

    Will people stop saying “jump the shark” in situations where it makes no goddamn sense? Ketchup has never had a Fonzie-like coolness. Don’t say it’s jumped the goddamn shark. End rant…

    I’d make one of their goddamn commercials if they, you know, would offer MONEY for it. You know, compensation, that thing that the little people like us actually need to fulfill basic needs. Maybe then, you’d get things like, uh, budgets… well, but then that would be technically a spec commercial, and no respectable company would open itself to letting just anyone make a spec commercial.

    /kills self

  16. synergy says:

    So who’s doing the judging? ’cause, you know, if I was a Madison Avenue ad agency person, I’d be saying “this is all crap!” and looking around to see if anyone was noticing that I’m just worried about keeping my job.

  17. erica.blog says:

    @lemur: For every instance of good to great user-generated content you can find, there’s a gazillion instances of crappy user-generated content. The average Joe out there seriously underestimates how hard it is to generate good content.

    Exactly. You need a bit of a budget, a bit of talent, a bit of an idea, and then you might create something worth watching…

  18. @s00p3rm4n: “User-generated ads are a gimmick and have jumped the shark.” Get them reading glasses checked, superman.

  19. ikemcfadden says:

    As JustThisGuy noted, most good, funny, creative ads get through DESPITE the “process”, not because of it. Most companies that can afford mass-media advertising are very conservative, because a lot of money is at stake. They would much rather make a mediocre ad than make an ad that got someone in trouble, or caused an uproar.

    Here is the formula: Good Original Ideas + Two Dozen Corporate Suits Reviewing it and Adding their Two Cents + Fear of Doing Anything That Hasn’t Already Proven Itself in the Past + Fear of Offending Anyone + Extensive Legal Department Review = A Pretty Tepid Idea shot out the back end.

    Not exactly a recipe for stellar creative output, is it?

  20. Kromem says:

    Even though Gatorade would never go for it, I kind of like the mockmercial I did for the product:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGuL0RnDDOY

  21. s00p3rm4n says:

    @idledebonair: Honey, have user-generated ads ever been cool either? Your squirrel-on-a-jetski/Herbal Essences mashup has never been cool. Good for a half laugh and a generous swig of bourbon to wash off the guilt, but never COOL like the FONZ.

    “Get them reading glasses checked, superman.”

    Get off my damn lawn you whippersnapper! (I’m 22, so that was ironic, not just awesome.)