For much of last fall, Jared Cicon estimated that he spent about 60 hours a week thinking about, dreaming of and yes, eating Doritos.
In the end, he shot — and often starred in — 10 commercials for the snack, nine of which he eventually asked the potato chip maker to consider for airing at this year's Super Bowl.
Cicon isn’t an ad agency executive or a commercial director — he’s a wedding photographer who hopes his submissions to an advertising contest will help him break into the filmmaking business.
“I wanted to become a better filmmaker anyways,” the 42-year-old said recently. “The Doritos contest was a real excuse to put my nose to the grindstone.”
The Super Bowl may be the ultimate celebration of the couch potato, but this year some companies are asking fans to get off the cushions and do some work.
A handful of advertisers, including the National Football League and Doritos, have invited consumers to submit their own ideas for commercials to air during the Feb. 4 game. For the winners, the contests carry the promise of actual air time on what is considered the biggest — and most costly — television advertising event of the year.
The idea of allowing regular people a say in an ad that could cost millions to air isn’t completely unexpected, given the massive popularity of YouTube and other post-your-own video Web sites. It also reflects a growing trend toward giving people more power over when, where and how they use media, via everything from podcasts to TiVo.
“We see consumer behavior shifting. People want more control,” said Brian Haven, a senior analyst with Forrester Research who studies advertising.
Still, several analysts have been surprised that major brand names have chosen to take such a gamble on the Super Bowl, one of the costliest and most-watched events on television. They say it shows how eager — or perhaps desperate — companies are to get their brands noticed and to make consumers feel like they are engaged in the product.
“It signifies a major shift,” said Neil Alperstein, professor of advertising and pop culture at Loyola College in Baltimore.
The gamble may pay off, but such contests also carry a huge risk because there is no guarantee they will result in a commercial that’s any good. It’s especially dicey on Super Bowl Sunday, when advertisers can expect millions of people to tune in and judge the ads mercilessly against professionally produced peers. Companies that relied on amateur creative talent are unlikely to get much leeway.
“I don’t think saying it was produced by somebody in Nebraska or at home in a basement gives them an out,” said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Advertisers know the pressure they face. When Lisa Baird first brought up the idea of having regular football fans come up with an ad promoting the NFL, she said her colleagues were wary.
“People were nervous,” said Baird, NFL’s senior vice president of marketing and consumer products. “I’m nervous."
More than 1,700 people eventually pitched their ideas for an NFL ad, including everyone from wannabe advertising executives to ordinary football fans. The live audition process turned out to be a marketing tool in its own right, drawing local and national press in addition to the fans.
Still, Baird insisted the ad pitch contest isn’t just a gimmick.
“It’s clearly more than a fad and more than a way to get PR,” she said. “Here’s a very viable way to create authentic, sincere stories about your brand.”
The NFL is now working feverishly to pull together an ad based on winner Gino Bona’s pitch about fans mourning the end of yet another football season. The ad is expected to air sometime during the game.
Between the contest promotions and the stepped-up production schedules, some companies involved say the commercials have in some cases become more expensive to produce than traditional spots.
“We’re absolutely not going into this as a cost-saving initiative,” said Tricia McKernan, vice president of global communications for Bayer Consumer Care, maker of Alka-Seltzer.
Alka-Seltzer challenged consumers to come up with a fresh take on the classic “plop plop fizz fizz” jingle to debut on Super Bowl Sunday. McKernan said they decided on the promotion after finding success with a previous ad campaign in which regular people talked about how Aleve pain reliever allowed them to do things like strum the guitar or play with their kids.
Josh Anderson, a morning DJ and self-taught guitarist who recorded his submission in his living room, won the contest. An Alka-Seltzer user who suffers from indigestion, his pop/rock jingle includes the line: “I try to keep it classy/but upset stomachs make me gassy/yeah.”
Chevrolet asked college students to submit ad concepts for its Super Bowl ad contest. Spokesman Travis Parman said the General Motors brand company limited the contest to 18- to 25-year-olds because it wanted to appeal younger people, and also because the company knew people that age are used to creating their own content for Web sites like MySpace.com.
“They really are the experts in this area, so we think we have something to learn from them, especially about creating a message that resonates with their peers,” Parman said.
Like the NFL and Alka-Seltzer, the car company is using the contest winners’ concept but will rely on professionals to make the ad Super Bowl-ready.
Doritos, on the other hand, plans to show its contest winner’s ad to millions of Super Bowl fans exactly the way it was submitted. The five finalists, who already won $10,000, will attend the Super Bowl and find out who won when the commercial airs.
Ann Mukherjee, vice president for marketing at for Doritos maker Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo Inc, said the company felt it had to take a big risk if it wanted to connect with its young target audience. To those snackers, she said, self-expression is extremely important.
Cicon earned a spot in the finals with a dream sequence that imagines a rock climber falling from a peak, his only focus on how many Doritos he can inhale before he hits the bottom.
Cicon credits the contest with honing his filmmaking skills, although they came at a price: The father of four says he has gained nine pounds since the contest began, largely because of all the Doritos he ate while filming the commercials.
Still, he hasn’t given up the snacks.
“I wasn’t a big fan of Doritos before, I’ll be honest with you, but I am now,” he said.
Although the companies involved have gone to great pains to tout the “average Joe” nature of their competitions, Forrester’s Haven said he would guess many submissions came from people like Cicon, who were looking to jumpstart a career in the field.
He also notes that major advances in technology for making and editing high-quality videos allows amateurs to produce relatively good videos at a low cost. Cicon, for example, spent just a few thousand dollars on his equipment.
Regardless of how the Super Bowl ads fare, Haven expects to see more user-created advertising down the road. Ultimately, he said, if regular people can produce even a handful of ads that rival those of major advertising agencies, that could mean substantial changes for the industry.
“It’s just a question of how good will that ad be, and what happens if it’s really good?” Haven said. “That has some pretty serious implications.”
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