I know I was going to shut up for most of April, but this is too interesting to overlook:
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."
Youtube.com is full of examples of these user-generated Chevy Tahoe ads that attack the whole idea of Chevy Tahoes as responsible for global warming or imminent oil shortages. But they're not all environmental lectures. This one takes a Freudian perspective on the whole notion of conspicuous consumption, as does this one, albeit more crudely.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the potential for a Maybelline cosmetics site to be hijacked by those who hated the product. It appeared to me that the Maybelline people had probably accounted for that possibility, and figured that since negative comments were going to be made anyway, why hide from them? Chevrolet's advertisers have apparently come to the same conclusion, according to the New York Times:
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."
Is it just that they're "willing to accept the risks?" Or are marketers finally deciding to participate in the real conversations about their products, the ones that say "yes, but…?"
Wouldn't it be great if political ads were opened up this way? Where, instead of shoving a message down your throat, a candidate would allow voters to express themselves about their platforms? And why are only advertisers of consumer products taking this alleged "risk?" Wouldn't a smart PR campaign also make room for critics and for, y'know, reality?*
I'm confident the people at Chevrolet are aware that some consumers will never buy an SUV strictly due to environmental concerns, and that others are conflicted and would appreciate some respect being given to their hesitancy. Letting customers joke about it shows the company is in touch. Going a step further would be to say, "We hear you" and respond in a way that treats these concerns thoughfully.
*(The best example is, of course, Amazon. If you put your product on Amazon, customers can review it. Many people, before buying a product, will check to see if it's on Amazon — not only to buy it there, but to see what other consumers think. Consumer reviews on Amazon have been decisive in many purchases I have made, both positively and negatively. Marketers obviously think it's worth "the risks" of having their products trashed in exchange for having them sold through Amazon. So why shouldn't you take the next step, and let consumers have their say on your own site…and then get into a conversation with them?)
**A few additions and edits made on 4/5/06.