Road Show

Over the past few years, the spotlight has been all about how marketers for everything from movies to meatballs have used digital media to allow consumers to participate in message making.

Over the past few years, the spotlight has been all about how marketers for everything from movies to meatballs have used digital media to allow consumers to participate in message making.

There have been great successes, such as, American Express's single-page fact sheet, associated with its My Card… campaign.

Indeed, “interactive” has become a key motif in integrated marketing, along with advertising, so-called “experiential” efforts, guerilla campaigns aimed at the sine qua non of demographics: urban multicultural youth, preferably twenty-somethings.

And champions of digital interactivity, especially consumer-generated marketing, are found seemingly everywhere in the car business. Honda’s recent effort for its Element crossover asked consumers to go to a Web site to interact and “talk” to such animals as a platypus, talking crab and a lizard as they drive the virtual Element around an island.

Jeff Bell, who will be leaving Chrysler for Microsoft on June 12, had been a constant champion of non-traditional and interactive media at Chrysler Group, putting Jeep vehicles into console games, such as Tony Hawk skateboarding games, and other digital experiences that let consumers explore and interact with, and – to some degree – change the environment hitherto “owned” by the marketer. Back when Pontiac first launched the Vibe several years ago, the company launched a Web-based effort that let consumers participate in naming the colors for the car. They could also go to a virtual music studio and create mixes.
But while there’s a great deal of “conversation” to be had with consumers this way, there is also a great deal of inherent risk involved, especially as the consumer-generated messages have evolved to include video, a fairly recent innovation. Allowing consumers to participate in the video message making, essentially allowing them both to create advertising, and then to distribute it through viral networks, also allow those with their own, perhaps critical message, to pirate the platform for their own ends, much as a virus that violates a cell membrane then uses the cell’s DNA to replicate its own genetic message.  

That’s what happened to Chevrolet recently, with its effort for the 2007 Tahoe, which was based on a tie-in with NBC’s The Apprentice, and tied it to consumer-generated marketing. The company had a great idea: generate buzz and awareness for the truck through digital word-of-mouth, by letting consumers create their own 30-second spots. In March, Chevrolet launched the effort, centered on a Web site that let consumers use video clips and a selection of music from Chevy, and their own text, to build a commercial.

It’s a great idea. Encourage those you assume – or hope – will be “brand evangelists” to extol the virtues of brand and vehicle via self-created ads. Chevrolet had certainly restricted its image possibilities to a limited number of video clips conforming to on-message visuals –Tahoe in snowy mountain ranges, next to a beautiful waterfall, down a beautiful, country road – would guarantee that site visitors would have no choice but to suffuse their video projects with positive messages, then plant the good word online. Unfortunately, Chevy allowed freedom of speech: users could create their own supers. And the effort launched as gasoline prices went through the roof, as anti-SUV sentiment increased with pump prices.

Ads that got the most buzz had text like this, using a video of Tahoe rolling away down a road. "Our planet's oil is almost gone. You don't need GPS to see where this road leads." Another said: “US$70 to fill up the tank, which will last less than 400 miles. Chevy Tahoe."

Clearly, for such efforts, one has to have a grasp of current events and their implications and good timing, and a willingness to leave it alone. To its credit, Chevy did the right thing, taking a laissez-faire approach to the criticisms, when others might have made the situation worse by shutting down shop, and getting another invidious moniker: speech police.

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