never saw Chris Larrigan coming.
Caught in the hype around “user-generated video” and
“consumer-created” TV commercials, Heinz decided it was
high time it launched its own user-generated content contest.
And so the “Top This” TV challenge was born, as a promotion
that invited any American with a trusty Handicam and
Hollywood dreams to create their own thirty-second commer-
cial for Heinz 57.
At stake: up to $57,000 in cash and prizes.
Larrigan and his friends took the brand up on the chal-
lenge—to breathtaking effect.
At the time a fifteen-year-old high school student in
Baltimore, Larrigan (not his real name) had long had an inter-
est in filmmaking. He and his friends had even founded a com-
edy troupe that shot a number of videos ranging from a spoof
Want Control?
Give It Away
of a Mont Blanc pen commercial, to rap songs about bacteria, to a
comedy about evolution for science class.
For the Heinz contest, the troupe once again found inspiration in
urban beats—crafting a rap music video that has the virtue of defying
Yes, there’s the incessant beat. The head bobbing and the unnerv-
ing sight of white, upper middle class teens aping gangland hand sig-
nals. And inexplicable lyrics like “Yo Heinz is the ketchup with all
unique flavors. . . . It’s a sauce that repels alien invaders.”
But steeped in elaborate green screen backdrops and produced with
thousands of dollars’ worth of hi-def equipment and software, it’s a
relatively well-produced affair, one that can only have polished the
troupe’s schoolyard cred—while simultaneously grating the already
frayed nerves of the Heinz marketing executives charged with review-
ing thousands of contest entries.
“What makes it funny is the fact that we’re not very good at rap-
ping,” Larrigan deadpanned at the time. “So we decided a rap video,
and doing it in the dumbest way possible, would be attractive in its
own ‘off way.”
That’s certainly one way to put it. Years from now, when Larrigan’s
a famous auteur, he’ll no doubt look back at the episode and laugh. He
may even recognize the fact that he was caught up in marketing’s first
intrepid steps toward truly democratizing digital media. At least, that
was the idea.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, nearly
10 percent of online Americans have uploaded video to the Net, via
YouTube or other video sharing sites. Over 15 percent of those
between eighteen and twenty-nine have done so, and the younger you
skew, the more likely the participation in user-generated content.
Already, over 20 percent of online teenage boys have uploaded videos
of their own creation.
Over time, marketers began to realize online video was popular,
and that consumer-created content either tended toward “Leave
Britney Alone”–style rants from celebrities’ fans, “Don’t Tase Me,
Bro”–level shenanigans of people in ridiculous situations, or scathing
spoofs of popular television commercials and brands.
It wasn’t long before marketers decided that if you can’t stop them,
embrace them—by providing consumers with the tools to craft com-
mercials for the chance to win prizes.
The idea: Entice hip young consumers to create their own videos
with the hope that the made-by-a-regular-Joe dynamic will build
interest outside the usual thirty-second spot, and that consumers will
email the homemade ads to their friends and build big-time buzz for
the brand. And today’s consumers seem more than happy to oblige.
“It’s a generational thing,” says Steven Amato, cofounder of Los
Angeles–based advertising-and-content studio Omelet. “It’s powerful
for brands, because it’s powerful for consumers. Consumers of today
don’t want to be advertised to—so much so that they would rather
make the ads themselves than sit back and have a passive experience
with the brand.”
The digerati like to call this kind of user-generated content (UGC)
the cutting edge, but it’s actually far from it.
“This label, ‘user-generated content,’ is new, but the concept dates
back to the origins of advertising in general, it’s as old as advertising
itself,” Norman Hayshar of Young & Rubicam recently told NPR,
adding that testimonials and jingle contests date back to the 1940s.
Indeed, for all the hype, user-generated content has been featured
on TV for nearly twenty years—in the form of ABC-TV’s America’s
Funniest Home Videos.
In Hayshar’s view, this new wave in UGC is being driven by two
forces: the popularity of YouTube, and the TV show American Idol.
“Mix these things together, and what you’ve really got is a creative
power-to-the-people movement that is reflected, as it always is, in the
culture in advertising.”
But it hasn’t been without its share of pitfalls.
Just ask Chevrolet.

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