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Custom(er)-Made Ads Have Street Cred

SMG’s Brunel explains why CGAs rock


Don Draper would be, appropriately, mad. The brilliant ad writer of TV’s Mad Men lived his fictional career decades before companies hit on the idea of asking their customers to come up with advertising for them.

Pioneered in the middle of the last decade by companies like Converse and by consumers like the creative soul who designed an online animation of flying iPods without the company’s backing, consumer-generated advertising (CGA) was at first scorned by pros. (“It sucks,” opined AdAge magazine.) But improved production values have brought grudging respect, even from establishment organs such as AdAge. Now, two School of Management associate professors have written a paper explaining why and how CGAs outperform professionally produced advertising with consumers.

And they do outperform them, Frederic Brunel and Susan Fournier say. For their paper, they studied both unsolicited CGAs made by satisfied customers and the growing field of CGAs solicited by companies through sponsored contests. The latter type made its big splash during the 2007 Super Bowl and 2007 Academy Awards (CGAs were previously creatures of the online world), and companies have continued airing CGAs during such prime-time spectacles, sometimes alerting viewers that the ads are customer-made.

Brunel and Fournier conducted several experiments, from analysis of online conversations about ads to surveying hundreds of consumers nationwide. BU Today spoke with Brunel, who presented the findings at SMG’s first annual Faculty Research Day in June.

BU Today: How did you study whether CGAs work?

Brunel: We had some evidence that CGAs had an effect. Pepsi Max and Doritos placed first and fourth in the 2011 USA Today Super Bowl ad meter, a poll of viewers. We also had evidence from Nielsen of online buzz, what people are talking about online, the positive content of tweeting messages. In these measures, CGAs do very well.

What did your research suggest about why these ads work?

The viewers of these ads are more engaged with the message than with traditional ads. Because they are created by customers, they really speak the language of customers, as opposed to ads conceived by people who are detached from the marketplace in some office in some tower. Viewers react differently if they know it’s a CGA. We found that consumers find it more trustworthy, more credible.

Then for CGAs to work, it’s essential that people know they’re made by consumers?

Correct. Think about engagement as connection—“I think about it more.” We know that for the advertising to work, people have to be processing the claim. CGAs generate that. People also have more thoughts about the creator. When we analyzed the conversations consumers have with each other online, there was cognitive, emotional, and personal engagement. These three pillars are traditional. Much more surprising and different was engagement with the creator. In these online conversations, 55 percent of the messages—we analyzed 867—contained some discussion that involved who made the ad, either discussion with the creator or about the creator.

Are companies paying consumers to make these ads?

For a contest, often there is some reward. The prizes tend to be quite modest compared to what it costs to create a professional ad.

Is Madison Avenue going to go the way of the dinosaurs?

Probably not. Often, these CGAs are reshot by the companies.

Because their production quality is poor?

Exactly. Also, some could argue there is still a certain novelty in the phenomenon. Will that effect last? We have five years of data. The fact that the effects are still there suggests that there is something enduring.

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest some brands are not ready to enter that space. I’ll give you an infamous example: Chevrolet decided to do this ad contest with the Chevy Tahoe, and they invited people to submit ads. They got an extremely large portion that were negative, that were anti-SUV, criticizing the gas mileage, the lack of caring for the Earth, etc. A lot of brands have skeletons in their closet. Think about BP a year ago.

One question that remains is, can we see real impact at the cash register—actual sales? Our studies show that after viewing an ad, people who have been told that the ad was a CGA—their purchase intention goes up. We don’t know if they follow through.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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