Our Robots, Ourselves
Daren C. Brabham / University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US!!!!

ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US!!!! (( If you don’t get this reference, you should go here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base_are_belong_to_us, and then here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ. ))

I really wanted Watson to lose, I really did. Everyone I knew wanted him to lose. Even Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter didn’t like him. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Watson, IBM’s latest computer system able to understand questions asked of it in natural language, exposed the pitiful humanness of champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter by beating them handily in a two-game Jeopardy! match. While I am in awe of Watson’s ability to understand natural human language, I am disappointed that I had to see him demystify the simple magic of the Jeopardy! game and the genius of two of the games most successful past champions.

IBM used the game of Jeopardy! as the task environment for Watson as it was developed over several years. What makes Jeopardy! so difficult for a computer to master is that the game is structured in reverse—i.e., contestants are given answers and have to phrase their response in the form of a question—and that the Jeopardy! clues contain a number of tricky phrases, word games, and essentially human fragments of knowledge. For example, on the final question of the game, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” Watson incorrectly answered “What is Toronto???” The correct answer, “What is Chicago,” was easy for Jennings and Rutter to answer because they had likely traveled through—or been stuck at—Midway and O’Hare airports in the past. Watson had not.

IBM tried really hard to get us to like Watson, too. The two-game Jeopardy! match was spread out over three shows, with slick public relations spots from IBM spliced in between the segments of the game. In these segments, we were told by IBM researchers about how Watson was developed, which was interesting, but also in part why Watson was developed. The Watson program was partly a “grand challenge” for IBM and the computing industry, a challenge with goals so lofty that to succeed would propel both the state of computing and the appeal of IBM as a place to work for top young minds in computer science.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC3IryWr4c8[/youtube]

In these segments, IBM also told us to expect future applications of Watson’s technology in the domain of health and science. Though these future health applications are admirable and certain, the reality, as is the reality of any high-performance computing project, is that Watson’s primary function will be for defense. We did not hear anything about Watson’s defense applications, but they are certainly there, and we would do well to remain critical of these kinds of “grand challenge” technology programs in terms of their peaceful, humanitarian claims.

Watson symbolizes something bigger, though, in the exciting domain of artificial intelligence (AI) computing. For this moment, Watson has come to represent, in singular, avatar form, the state of AI. But it is a misleading representation.

Today’s artificial intelligence, as Wired’s Steven Levy recently noted, “bears little resemblance to its initial conception.” (( Steven Levy. “The AI Revolution is On.” Wired, 19(1), 27 December 2010, at para. 5. Available online at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_ai_essay_airevolution )) We used to think the future would bring humanoid robots, companions in our image that could help us with tasks and amplify our abilities. But today’s artificially intelligent machines instead do small tasks very well, combing through massive amounts of data rapidly and streamlining specific portions of our industrial lives. These machines still “augment human intellect.” (( Douglas C. Engelbart. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” Washington, DC: Air Force Office of Scientific Research, October 1962. Available online at http://www.invisiblerevolution.net/engelbart/full_62_paper_augm_hum_int.html )) They just don’t look like us.

Rosie from The Jetsons, the robot we all wish we had today.

Rosie from The Jetsons, the robot we all wish we had today.

Or do they?

We are, in fact, playing a role in AI. Crowdsourcing systems like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk connect companies with individuals looking to make a bit of money performing simple tasks. ((Jeff Barr and Luis Felipe Cabrera. “AI Gets a Brain: New Technology Allows Software to Tap Real Human Intelligence.” ACM Queue, 4(4), 2006, pp. 24-29.)) At Mechanical Turk, “Requester” companies can use the site to coordinate a series of simple tasks they need accomplished by humans, tasks that computers cannot easily do, such as accurately tagging the content of images on the Internet for a search engine. Individuals in the Mechanical Turk community, known as “Turkers,” can then sign up to accomplish a series of these “human intelligence tasks” (HITs) for very small monetary rewards paid by the Requester. Mechanical Turk essentially coordinates large-scale collections of simple tasks requiring human intelligence, employing Turkers as cogs in a giant, artificially intelligent machine.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos calls this process “artificial artificial intelligence,” since computers facilitate distributed human computation. ((Jason Pontin. “Artificial Intelligence, with Help from the Humans.” New York Times, 25 March 2007, at para. 3. Available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/business/yourmoney/25Stream.html?_r=1)) We are all computers. And we are Watson, too. Machines do not make themselves, and they certain do not make us. Humans make machines, and because “all artifacts have politics,” ((Langdon Winner. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus, 109(1), 1980, pp. 121-136.)) machines are both endowed with our values and flawed by our human limitations. Watson, as impressive as he was, did not know more than was loaded into him. He had volumes and volumes of knowledge stored on his hard drive, but it was human knowledge and no more.

Perhaps Watson harrows us with fear and wonder. ((In Act 1, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio remarks on seeing the king’s ghost, “it harrows me with fear and wonder.”)) We are at once awed by Watson’s/IBM’s/our performance and fearful that Watson makes us—the un-augmented, average humans—obsolete. Seeing a machine hijacking a long-running TV show that humanizes nerds makes us long for that kind of humanness. For the trivia buff, Jeopardy! is something to aspire to (and I recently took/bombed the Jeopardy! online test, a first step in the tryout process), and Watson’s domination made the show seem just a bit further away from my reach. I feel a bit more disconnected from Jeopardy! because a robot spoiled it. Maybe that is why I was rooting against Watson. Watson made losers of us all by beating the best humans we could throw at it.

But there is an upside to this. If we remember that Watson is merely an extension, an augmentation, of our own human intellect, we can all try to take a little bit of credit for his greatness. Or at least not be so shaken by it. We are all robots after all, and IBM’s recent parade of artificial intelligence is a reminder that we/the machines can do amazing things when we partner with technology to solve problems. Televised exhibitions of technology, like Watson on Jeopardy!, should serve to inspire us, not depress us. In these spectacles, I hope we see possible better futures and not just an avatar of swirling orbs on a computer screen or, worse, a threat to our existence. We should see in technological breakthroughs the opportunity to dream bigger than we are already, to imagine a world where massive social and environmental problems are within our grasp.

Image Credits:
1. Final Jeopardy with Watson.
2. Rosie the robot.




The Myth of Amateur Crowds
Daren Brabham / University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Main page of threadless.com

Main page of threadless.com, where users can buy and upload t-shirt designs

I first examined the crowdsourced advertising trend on Flow nearly two years ago, focusing on Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” ad contest and the disastrous user-generated ad experiments by Chevy Tahoe and Heinz. In recent years, we’ve seen other examples of crowdsourced advertising and attempts by companies to involve consumers in the creation or selection of products in various ways. We’ve even seen renewed interest in crowdsourcing film production with Ridley Scott’s Life in a Day documentary compiled from user-submitted clips via YouTube. ((For other crowd-made films, see the 2005 Finnish science fiction parody Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning and the 2006 Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! .)) Each of these instances of user-generated or crowdsourced media production has been accompanied by an enthusiastic discourse of amateurism, a discourse I, too, have been guilty of perpetuating in the past. Now that more empirical research has been done on these co-creative arrangements, it is important to clear the air a bit, to dispel the myth that these sometimes slick media products are the result of everyday, amateur people looking for a creative outlet.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMdsx0wv1Yo[/youtube]

First, it is worth distinguishing crowdsourcing from simple public input. Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem solving and production model whereby an organization leverages the collective intelligence of an online community for a specific purpose. ((Daren C. Brabham. “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 75-90.)) There are at least four dominant types of crowdsourcing, and the one most relevant to the media industry is the peer-vetted creative production approach. In this arrangement, an organization asks an online community to produce whole creative ideas, such as television commercials, and then empowers that community with some ability to vet the ideas of peers, usually through a voting mechanism. ((Noah S. Friedland and Daren C. Brabham. Leveraging Communities of Experts to Improve the Effectiveness of Large-Scale Research Efforts [White paper]. Renton, WA: The Friedland Group, 2009.)) The result is the generation and selection of creative content that an organization can then use for its own purposes, often in exchange for a prize to the winning idea. The Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” ad contest is a great example of true crowdsourcing.

Though the word “crowdsourcing” is tossed around liberally to refer to any instance where an online community voices its opinion, I define crowdsourcing rather narrowly. In contrast to crowdsourcing are several cases where companies simply ask its consumers to vote on their favorite idea. Mountain Dew’s “DEWmocracy” promotion is an example of this kind of simple input-gathering. In 2010’s “DEWmocracy” campaign, people had the opportunity to vote on a slate of possible new flavors of Mountain Dew, with citrus-flavored “White Out” winning the vote. “DEWmocracy” was just another iteration of the kind of thing M&M’s did in 1995, where people could call in to vote on a new color to replace its retiring tan color (blue won). These input-gathering activities are little more than public relations campaigns to engage consumers in the launch of new products, no different than large-scale market surveys or focus groups. This is not crowdsourcing.

Mountain Dew's

Because voting for a Mountain Dew flavor is as important as real democratic participation.

In these input-gathering public relations campaigns, amateurs truly are engaging the product in a small way, casting thousands or millions of votes to determine the product they will have an opportunity to purchase next. But this “engagement of the masses” in product development does not translate to real crowdsourcing activities. Really, those with specific interests or professional training are more likely to participate in crowdsourcing contests. These are not everyday people who pick up a video camera and try to produce a commercial.

When Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, he launched a blog called Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur, tethering the image of the amateur or hobbyist to the buzzword of crowdsourcing. Early on, it was assumed that the crowd really was just a crowd of average Joes—a few experts in the bunch, but mostly just bored everyday folks in their cubicles at work, toiling away on crowdsourcing sites to express their pent-up creative energies. This amateurism is more a romantic notion than a truth, though.

Billy Federighi and Brett Snider, who were finalists in the 2007 Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” ad contest, were film students in Hollywood, with access to the training and equipment needed to make a quality commercial. ((“Faces in the Crowd: Brett Snider.” Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur [Weblog] 8 March 2007 .)) And despite the “rags-to-riches” rhetoric surrounding the jobless Herbert brothers, winners of the 2009 “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, “Dave and Joe [Herbert] weren’t exactly in rags, their unemployment was deliberate, and their triumphant Doritos commercial was as carefully calibrated as any Madison Avenue marketing campaign.” ((P. F. Wilson. “Reel Men of Genius.” Cincinnati Magazine June 2009: para. 7. .)) The Herbert brothers’ winning entry was made with the help of a crew of two dozen, which included professionals.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AGaKKIo9FY[/youtube]

The same is true in the world of graphic design and stock photography. Despite being praised as a “marketplace for the work of amateur photographers—homemakers, students, engineers, dancers” ((Jeff Howe. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired 14.6 (June 2006): para. 5. .))—stock photography company iStockphoto.com seems largely a second market for professional stock photographers to sell their work. My survey of 651 iStockers in 2007 ((The iStockphoto data presented here are previously unreported. Other data from this study were published in 2008: Daren C. Brabham. “Moving the Crowd at iStockphoto: The Composition of the Crowd and Motivations for Participation in a Crowdsourcing Application.” First Monday 13.6 2008. http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2159/1969.)) found that 47% of participants felt that the term “professional” most accurately described them in terms of their creative talents (the most popular choice), with “hobbyist” the second most common (23%) and “amateur” the third most common (14%). Furthermore, 58% of iStockers surveyed had at least a year of formal schooling in art, design, photography, or a related creative discipline, and more than one-fourth (26%) had more than five years of schooling. And 44% had more than five years of paid artistic experience.

At Threadless.com, a crowdsourced t-shirt design company, many of those who submit t-shirt designs are professionally trained graphic designers and artists. Several of the winning designers who have been interviewed by members of the Threadless community even have their own robust freelance design portfolios, belong to well organized design collectives, and work for graphic design, Web design, and advertising firms.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VKRbmnqXR4[/youtube]

On the other end of the spectrum, crowdsourced scientific research and development company InnoCentive.com features a similar slant toward professionals and experts, with nearly 70% of participants in the “solver” community holding Ph.D.s in science. ((Karim R. Lakhani, Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse, and Jill A. Panetta. The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving [Harvard Business School Working Paper no. 07-050], 2007. .)) Likewise, a crowdsourcing experiment in bus stop shelter design in 2009-2010 aimed at bringing in amateur input attracted design submissions from mostly professional architects, urban planners, graphic designers, or current students of those disciplines.

Crowds, quite simply, are not comprised of amateurs in the way we’d like to think that they are. Why does this matter to the media industry? It matters because the discourse of amateurism in user-generated or consumer-voted media is also connected to the discourse of democracy. If something is made “by the people, for the people”—everyday, amateur people—then in our culture it is in some ways automatically better; it wasn’t expertly targeted to us by profit-hungry companies, and it wasn’t spun by a politically biased news organization. The discourse of amateurism thus makes us feel more empowered, more in control of the products and media we consume. But these so-called amateurs are really just outsourced professionals, and the products and media content we are sold are not much different and certainly no more democratically created.

It is problematic to celebrate the work of professionals through the discourse of amateurism, not just because it’s a lie and privileges elites, but because it allows companies to outsource responsibility as well. If a company can claim it opened itself up to input from a crowd, then it can similarly avoid accountability for content that flops in the ratings, perpetuates stereotypes, or otherwise fails. And even if user-generated content fails, the company can usually win in terms of public relations, claiming that it engaged consumers in the brand in more intimate ways than it ever had before.

As more people get access to the Internet, we will only see more of this kind of crowd engagement on the part of consumer goods manufacturers and media companies, and we’ll continue to be sold this vision of amateurism along the way. It’s a new iteration of the same old American myth of the self-made man, of bootstraps, of the Protestant ethic of self-help. It is up to us to start seeing through this illusion of democracy and amateurism in crowdsourcing and user-generated media endeavors in order to realize that all of this activity, at its root, is just more consumerism skillfully executed by creative professionals.

Image Credits:
1. Threadless.com
2. Mountain Dew “Dewmocracy” campaign advertisement, Source: flickr.com, User: “Mountain Dew White Out”




The Potential of Vernacular Video for Queer Youth
Daren C. Brabham / University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Rutgers University’s Tyler Clementi, the most recent of four teen suicides in September stemming from anti-gay sentiments

Rutgers University’s Tyler Clementi, the most recent of four teen suicides in September stemming from anti-gay sentiments

September 2010 was a particularly bad month for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) communities. Last month, Senate Republicans voted to halt a military spending bill that would have also repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that prevents LGBT people from serving openly. Also last month, Bishop Eddie Long, leader of a large church in Atlanta known for preaching an anti-gay and hyper-masculine message, found himself implicated in a gay sex scandal, joining a group of other hypocritical anti-gay pastors and politicians. It was also another month gone by without marriage equality.

But the true tragedy of September, and of many months before that, was that so many teenagers endured bullying because they were suspected of being gay. First-year Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who was not openly gay, committed suicide after his dorm roommate webcast his sexual encounter with another man. Clementi’s death was, unfortunately, the fourth of its kind in September, punctuating a string of similar suicides by teenagers forcibly outed or bullied by classmates. What was different about Clementi’s tragedy, however, was that he was outed via webcam and broadcast to an unknown number of people. His private love life was made public without his knowing, his security compromised, and his personal, comfortable pace of sexual identity development accelerated beyond his control.

Poster for anti-gay bullying campaign by Lauren Swanson

Poster for anti-gay bullying campaign by Lauren Swanson

We see popular, well-adjusted gay teen characters like Glee’s Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) on television and we forget how many teens deal with bullying and suicidal thoughts as they come to terms with their sexual identity in isolation and fear. LGBT people, especially closeted queer youth, need privacy and safety above all. They need confidantes, not surveillance. Today’s vernacular video culture ((For an overview of vernacular video concepts, see Howard Rheingold’s vlog about the topic.)), where everyone has the equipment and the skill to shoot a quick video and disseminate it on the Internet, makes being closeted a scary place. Gossip and bullying for being suspected of being gay is one thing, but video proof sent to classmates can be a death blow.

Writing in 1995 about the effects of vernacular video on journalism, Pat Aufderheide noted that this practice shows us “realities we might not otherwise have been allowed to visit,” where “nothing is too personal.” ((Pat Aufderheide. “Vernacular Video: For the Growing Genre of Camcorder Journalism, Nothing is too Personal.” Columbia Journalism Review January/February 1995: 46.)) Furthermore, Tom Sherman noted that video is “an instrument for framing existence and identity.” ((Tom Sherman. “Vernacular Video.” Wired 28 January 2007: para. 4. , excerpted from Sherman’s The Nine Lives of Video Art .)) The practice of vernacular video, then, can be both invasive and revealing, both oppressive and expressive, but always personal and ubiquitous. These video practices led to Celementi’s suicide and have indeed exposed and harmed the reputations of many others unwittingly. ((Another recent example of invaded privacy gone viral is Duke University student Karen Owen’s sex-rating “honors thesis” .)) So where should we place the blame for these kinds of tragedies, and what can be done about it? Is there a place for vernacular video as a remedy?

Without a doubt, those doing the bullying or secret recording are the first to blame for a queer youth’s suicide. But it is irresponsible to vilify only these individuals when many others are complicit. Asher Brown, a 13-year-old middle school student in Houston (from my home school district, no less), took his own life after nearly two years of bullying at school for being gay. Brown’s parents claim school officials failed to take action when made aware of the bullying. And last year, Jayron Martin, a high school student (again from my school district), was “beaten with a metal pipe in what he said was an anti-gay attack. . . . Martin said at the time he had begged two principals and his bus driver to intervene prior to the attack, but they failed to do so.” ((John Wright. “Advocates Push Safe Schools Bill in Wake of Suicide.” DallasVoice.com 30 September 2010: para. 10. .)) School officials are certainly to blame when they know about this kind of harassment and stand idly by.

Asher Brown, 13, killed himself after enduring 18 months of bullying and harassment

Asher Brown, 13, killed himself after enduring 18 months of bullying and harassment

Beyond these immediate actors in a situation, though, society is to blame. Blogger Perez Hilton posted a video response to recent anti-gay violence and suicides from comedian Sarah Silverman that indicts parents who teach their children intolerance. Ellen DeGeneres made a similar statement on her show, as well, stating that “there are messages everywhere that validate this kind of bullying and taunting.” And comedian David Cross, on Real Time with Bill Maher, made a similar comment, this time focusing specifically on hypocrisy from anti-gay leaders like Eddie Long:
“You can blame people like Bishop Eddie Long for it [recent suicides]. Anybody who makes a living off of denigrating [gay] people, and especially as hypocritical as they are. Even if they’re not, you can directly blame people like Eddie Long for that big step.” ((David Cross, speaking on episode 191 of Real Time with Bill Maher, 1 October 2010. Partial transcript and clips available at HBO.com .))

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WM6xbW1DZyM[/youtube]

With the downer of living in an always-on-camera culture as a closeted individual comes the uplifting potential for using video as a way to reach out to those in need of support. As video is a powerful tool for ridiculing and bullying, it is also a tool that queer youth can use to express themselves, to connect with others like them, or to hear from LGBT adults that life is worth living for. September 2010 was also the birth of the It Gets Better Project, a resource started by Savage Love columnist Dan Savage.

It Gets Better consists of videos of adult LGBT individuals (and some straight ones) speaking about their triumphant experiences coming out, enduring the pain of high school to live fulfilling lives as adults. These videos have all the generic features—and all the power—of vlogs, or video blogs. ((See Aymar Jean Christian. “Real Vlogs: The Rules and Meanings of Online Personal Videos.” First Monday 14.11 (2009). .)) Individuals look directly into the camera, often poorly lit, in their messy bedrooms, as real as it gets. The stories detail the pain of high school bullying or the fear of coming out in a small town or some other intimidation. But then they end with a message that “it gets better” as you get older, and that high school is not all that meaningful in the long run. Taken as a whole, the more than 700 videos uploaded to the project website to date form a chorus of hope and encouragement for queer youth struggling to fit in.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IcVyvg2Qlo[/youtube]

The quality and quantity of the It Gets Better message is amplified even more by the media that carry it. In a vernacular video format, particularly in the generic conventions of a vlog, viewers can watch speakers look directly to them through the lens, in an informal setting, making the message more personal and powerful. The video posts offer a feel of trust and security found in true friendship. And the Internet is also an effective medium for the “it gets better” message because of its reach, its temporal flexibility, and its anonymity. The messages can be accessed at convenient times, from anywhere on the planet with connectivity, and closeted queer youth can use the digital veil of the Internet to provide anonymous cover as they seek out and consume these resources. I would argue that this mediated outreach effort surpasses the abilities of face-to-face outreach efforts in many ways. As Savage pointed out, “gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied” and “homophobic parents . . . depriv[e] them of information, resources, and positive role models.” ((Dan Savage. “Give ’Em Hope.” The Stranger’s Savage Love column 23 September 2010: para. 15. .)) There are simply too many social and policy barriers in many communities for LGBT outreach efforts to actually reach the individuals who need them. Also, traditional LGBT outreach efforts often struggle to portray a range of diverse experiences. Many well-meaning organizations attempting to reach the full LGBTQ (questioning) spectrum are in practice dominated in programmatic focus and in membership numbers by one slice of the pie, be it lesbians, gay men, political affiliation, age group, or race. What is great about It Gets Better is the multitude of voices and faces. There are lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered people, as well as a variety of skin colors, religious upbringings, ages, and interpretations of masculinity and femininity, all represented in the collection.

Perhaps media scholars should focus their efforts on creating these kinds of mediated spaces rather than merely critiquing the ineffective examples from the ivory tower. What if we became more like critical media designers than media critics? ((I first put forth a “critical media design” approach as an active, critical media intervention using new media tools in Chapter 3 of my dissertation. Daren C. Brabham. Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: Leveraging the Collective Intelligence of Online Communities for Public Good. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Utah (directed by Prof. Joy Pierce), 2010. Also, Flanagan makes an argument for designing critical play spaces in games in her book. Mary Flanagan. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. Finally, Ott offers a sound critique of empty critical media studies scholarship and suggests a refocus on pleasure in its place. Brian L. Ott. “(Re)locating Pleasure in Media Studies: Toward an Erotics of Reading.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 1.2 (2004): 194-212.)) We have the tools and the know-how to start YouTube channels and launch websites, and we can teach our students to do the same. Vernacular video and collaborative online projects like It Gets Better hold enormous potential to intervene in oppressive cultural arrangements and to actively replace those oppressive situations with visions of possibility. I dare say Dan Savage et al. have actually done more in the way of critical media studies than most of the published media criticism of the past few decades. Savage’s project is actually trying to save lives. This is not to say media criticism has no purpose. It does, and we need to keep doing it. But with easy-to-use new media tools at our disposal, I think more media scholars—and everyone else—need to start thinking about applied interventions in social problems, using the tools they are so used to picking apart. To what extent are critical media studies scholars also to blame for these kinds of social tragedies?

Image Credits:
1. Rutgers University’s Tyler Clementi, the most recent of four teen suicides in September stemming from anti-gay sentiments.
2. Poster for anti-gay bullying campaign by Lauren Swanson.
3. Asher Brown, 13, killed himself after enduring 18 months of bullying and harassment.




Tricking the Taste Buds: Messages of Deception and Inconvenience in “Healthy” Food
Daren C. Brabham / UNC Chapel Hill


Broccoli-flavored brownies would have gone over much better.

My parents used old school tactics to get me to eat my vegetables when I was a child. I was told that dessert happened only once my plate was clean, I was told that vegetables were delicious and good for me, and I was told that poor kids elsewhere in the world were not as fortunate as I was to have such a large and nutritious meal. The tactics were based on facts and truth, and the tactics worked. But as basic as the “eat your vegetables” rule is, it apparently no longer works on today’s kids. Today’s media landscape is full of books and programming and advertisements describing covert tactics for getting good food into children, and the whole practice has bigger implications for Americans’ long-term health.

In 2007, Missy Chase Lapine published a cookbook called The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. That same year, Jessica Seinfeld published Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food, which was controversial in its own right because many of Seinfeld’s recipes seemed to be direct rip-offs of Lapine’s. In any event, both books were best sellers in 2007, Seinfeld’s helped in part by a blessing from Oprah. The books feature kid-friendly recipes reworked with various vegetable and fruit purees, such as brownies made with pureed spinach. Yes, spinach.

The message used to be pretty direct: eat your spinach or you’ll be wimpy.

In addition to Seinfeld and Lapine’s squabble over copyright claims, critics of the books found many things wrong with the recipes. Critics pointed out that the recipes didn’t really contain substantial servings of vegetables, and that the cooking and processing of the vegetables in order to work them into the recipes depleted nutrients. Critics also noted that the recipes were time-consuming and unrealistic for busy parents. A lot of the recipes were just plain gross, too, with unappealing tastes, colors, and textures. Another common critique of the clandestine veggies trend was that being “deceptive” or “sneaky” with children about what they eat could lead to long-term mistrust, and that the practice basically condones lying. But the most serious complaint about the books was that serving vegetables in the form of cookies, brownies, and chicken nuggets both sends “the wrong message that sweets and starches are good for them” and discourages kids from ever learning to enjoy vegetables because of the “invisibility of vegetables in their own recognizable forms” in the recipes ((Mimi Sheraton. “Lie to Your Children—It’s Good for Them.” Slate. 24 Oct. 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2176564/)).

The vegetable cover-up has now moved from books to television commercials, as giant packaged food manufacturers have begun to mass produce (junk) foods along with messages that children need trickery. Chef Boyardee’s latest commercials for its canned pasta products include the tagline “Obviously delicious. Secretly nutritious,” again trading on the language of deception. In one ad, the father tries to inform his son that the ravioli he’s eating contains a full serving of vegetables, but before he can fully utter the word “vegetables,” he’s drowned out by the mother intentionally running the garbage disposal and banging pots and pans. She struggles to hide the truth from her son, as if even the word “vegetable” will repulse him. In another commercial in the Chef Boyardee series, the same mother and son stop to enjoy a ravioli sample in a grocery store. But again, before the saleswoman can mention the word “vegetable,” the mother interrupts her and eventually rams her shopping cart into a large stack of cans.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeDjuKYzX8w’ >watch?v=KeDjuKYzX8w[/youtube]

Letting your kids know they’re secretly eating healthy is tantamount to sharing nuclear secrets.

I am unconvinced that Chef Boyardee’s canned ravioli is all that “nutritious”—because, well, it isn’t — and I’m unconvinced that hawking canned pasta is truly the best way to get kids to eat their vegetables. Not only do commercials like these deceive children and train children to see junk food as nutritious, but the commercials fuse these messages with a consumerist message. Because being a sneaky chef at home is too time consuming and expensive, mass produced goods are capitalizing on the trend by selling convenience and affordability as well. The message to children and parents in the past few years has morphed from “make delicious homemade meals with vegetables hidden in them” to “buy a can of pre-made food with vegetables hidden in them and heat it up in minutes.” Though unsurprising, it is a problematic shift, because while the concept of hiding vegetables in “kid-friendly” food is questionable, at least parents were actually cooking at home, using real produce and carefully monitoring what went into a dish. Mass produced foods, as authors such as Michael Pollan and documentaries such as King Corn and Food, Inc. have noted, are packed with sugars and fats, made in sometimes unsafe environments, and are making Americans fatter and sicker.

Adults are also being targeted by ads for supposedly nutritious packaged foods, but the messages in these cases focus on convenience rather than deception. Since adults should already know healthy eating habits, these commercials sell the idea that eating healthy is a chore. Fruit2day, a juice drink new to the U.S. that contains bits of fruit, is certainly on the healthier side of juice drinks , but the commercials portray women struggling with eating messy, bruised, and moldy fruit in the course of busy workdays. Is eating fruit really that much of a burden? The same goes for drinking water Whole new industries have been carved out in the past few years just to make water palatable to a generation of young adults who chugged soda and Kool-Aid as kids. Crystal Light, Propel, SoBe Lifewater—all are products bent on pulling adults into a consumerist mindset about even the most basic task of hydrating.

The common thread here is that advertising messages are no longer trying to convince us that we need to consume to attain luxurious, comfortable lifestyles. Rather, we are being duped into thinking the basics of human existence—fruits, vegetables, water—are, in their raw, un-processed, visible forms, 1) undesirable, 2) inconvenient, and 3) in need of a makeover. This will have a big impact down the road on American health in general. As we vilify McDonald’s for selling children fatty, sugary foods, we blindly accept that these fast foods are the ideals for children, so long as we can sneak in a spoonful of spinach puree. As we shun soft drinks as adults, consciously trying to become healthier and drink more water, we reach for flavorings (often with chemicals) to help the water go down. Media’s role in selling us unhealthy habits has not changed. But we have learned to justify today’s deception because media trade in the healthy buzzwords we want to hear. In the process, though, we continue to allow junk food peddlers to set us up for making bad decisions in our lives. Perhaps we need a return to the old school tactics to make our kids (and ourselves) eat well: make the brownies come after the spinach, remember that basic nutrition is good for the body, and think about those less fortunate who don’t have the luxury of hiding vegetables conveniently in a can from the supermarket.

Image Credits:

1. Broccoli-flavored brownies would have gone over much better.
2. The message used to be pretty direct: eat your spinach or you’ll be wimpy.
3. Uncle Sam

Please feel free to comment.




Power in Parody: Femininity 101 at RuPaul’s Drag U
Daren C. Brabham / UNC at Chapel Hill


RuPaul’s Drag U on Logo

It is easy to see why Logo , a cable channel in the MTV network focusing on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, has found so much success recently with two seasons of the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. ((According to a press release from Logo, the second season’s finale brought in 633,000 total viewers, and the series became LogoTV.com’s most streamed series ever with 9.8 million streams. See http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/logos-season-finale-of-rupauls-drag-race-burns-ratings-rubber-clocking-in-as-networks-highest-rated-and-most-watched-telecast-ever-92315264.html)) In Drag Race, some of the nation’s best drag queens compete to become “America’s next drag superstar,” taking advice from sage/host RuPaul in a campy nod to Tyra Banks’ now formulaic America’s Next Top Model format. The show, quite simply, is fierce, and every costume and one-liner delivered by the contestants is top-notch entertainment.

On July 19, 2010, a spin-off of Drag Race premiered on Logo. RuPaul’s Drag U places some of the most memorable drag queens from the two seasons of Drag Race in the role of professors, and each episode features three biological women contestants in desperate need of a drag makeover at RuPaul’s “school for girls.” The women in the first episode are tomboys hoping to become more feminine, and teasers for future episodes suggest that upcoming shows will focus on transforming single and lonely (straight) women into date-able divas. What makes Drag U so fascinating—aside from the campy university theme and, of course, the drag queens—is that the transformation process is ironic. Men dressed as over-the-top women, in a performative critique of the artificial construct of gender itself, offer advice to women on how to be more feminine. Or, as RuPaul charges the faculty of Drag U in the first episode: “You ladyboys need to show these boy-ladies how it’s done.”

A quick glance at Drag U brings to mind Queer Eye ((For its first three seasons, the show was called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but seasons four and five were simply called Queer Eye)) Bravo’s groundbreaking series from the mid-2000s, where a crew of five gay men transformed sloppy straight dudes into men capable of charming women with their personal grooming, “metrosexual” fashion, gourmet food sense, and manners. However, while both shows emphasize an LGBT sensibility employed to make straight men and women better at being straight men and women, Drag U is more complex than Queer Eye. First, the men of Queer Eye each had a specialty that played to common stereotypes of gay men—mavens of food and wine, grooming, interior design, fashion, and culture—that ultimately reinforced heteronormativity. ((One article that addresses Queer Eye’s heteronormativity is Robert Westerfelhaus and Celeste Lacroix. “Seeing ‘Straight’ through Queer Eye: Exposing the Strategic Rhetoric of Heteronormativity in a Mediated Ritual of Gay Rebellion.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23.5 (2006): 426-44. See also Zizi Papacharissi and Jan Fernback. “The Aesthetic Power of the Fab 5: Discursive Themes of Heteronormativity in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 32.4 (2008): 348-67)) These men were fragmented, but taken together they provided a supposed well-rounded slate of advice for the straight man. On the contrary, the professors of Drag U are each in themselves well-rounded, each possessing the skills needed to advise the straight women contestants in the ways of clothing, make-up, movement, and attitude. Thus this show does not fragment the drag queens into areas of expertise, and by keeping the professors whole the show presents drag queens as human.

Queer Eye’s Fab 5

Second, the focus of Queer Eye was to make the straight man more suitable to a straight woman, to define the straight man’s identity and purpose in relation to his opposite-sex counterpart. The purpose of Drag U, however, is to make straight women better individually, to focus on self-improvement and self-esteem as a way to unleash an inner diva capable of doing anything, including attracting a man if she chooses.

This latter point is evident in Reyna’s transformation in the first episode. Reyna mentions her comfort wearing baggy men’s clothing because it hides her cleavage and femininity and allows her to avoid sexual harassment from men and to be taken seriously. She finds dressing feminine as a surrender of power. Yet RuPaul reminds her that he wears women’s clothes to feel more powerful, and that Reyna’s transformation is as much about attitude and confidence as it is about sequins and wigs. Essentially, to parody femininity in the exaggerated art form of drag is to identify the power embedded in the cultural performance of gender, and to distill that power and own it when the wigs and make-up come off. As the professors of Drag U blur the boundaries of gender and sex so easily, and as they teach the contestants how to confidently play in this liminal space, they empower the contestants to take charge of their own definitions of femininity.

“Tomboy Meets Girl,” the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag U

As RuPaul puts it in a bonus clip from Logo.com, a drag transformation allows someone to realize a superhero version of herself. And because the final makeover is so visually over-the-top and ridiculous, the lesson that shines through for the contestants has more to do with confidence and self-worth than about shallow appearances. The mantra chanted at the end of each episode of Drag Race, after all, is “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

An interview with RuPaul, the headmaster of Drag U, explaining the impetus and philosophy of the show.

The self-esteem boosts extend to audiences as well through new media channels. Drag U’s page on LogoTV.com offers users a chance at their own drag makeover. In the show, contestants’ data are fed into a fake machine called the Dragulator, which returns a dragged-up image of the contestant toward which the professors target their makeovers. The show’s website has its own Dragulator where you can upload a photo of yourself (or your dad) and add drag embellishments. Throughout the process, the on-screen text and RuPaul’s voice-overs are encouraging and, of course, humorous. Once your Dragulation is complete, the website encourages you to upload your drag photo to the wall of the Drag U Facebook page for grading, where queens from the Drag Race and Drag U casts really do comment on photos. A look at the interactions with Facebook fans reveals a consistently positive engagement on the part of the drag queens, helping to underscore the message of self-esteem and empowerment in the shows, as well as connecting the stars of the show with the audience in a savvy use of social media channels. The queens even respond to fan mail. ((Pandora Boxx , my favorite of RuPaul’s drag queens, responded to a bit of my fan mail through Facebook within a matter of hours. Fierce!))

Entertained, empowered, and thoroughly hopeful that this reality TV franchise really does continue for many more seasons, I offer my Dragulated picture for the tenure file.

Scholarly realness! Work it!

Image Credits:

1. RuPaul’s Drag U on Logo
2. Queer Eye’s Fab 5
3. Scholarly realness! Work it! (made with author’s own photo)

Please feel free to comment.




Bend it Like Shuster: Broadcasting Curling’s Accessibility
Daren C. Brabham / University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



U.S. Olympic Men’s Curling team. Captain John Shuster Front and Center.

Aside from catching obligatory highlight reels on the evening news, I had never really paid much attention to the Olympic Games in my life up until this year. But this past winter, looking for any excuse to avoid writing my dissertation, I tuned into an unhealthy amount of television coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. I had never seen curling before I caught my first match on one of NBC’s cable networks, but by the time the men’s and women’s medal matches came around, I was checking scores on my phone, reading about the athletes online, and trying to strike up a conversation about curling with any of my friends who would tolerate it. But why? What made me so crazy in such a short amount of time for this relatively little-known sport? And the bigger question: what made so many Americans crazy for curling?

My answer to this question is simple. Curling has enjoyed recent growth in the U.S. in part because it received a lot of airtime during the 2010 Games, and also because media coverage of curling emphasized the sport’s accessibility. Curling was portrayed as a sport mastered by average Joes, not the products of elite physical conditioning and expensive training from an early age, and it is the only sport in which audiences could conceivably see themselves fulfilling their Olympic dreams someday. Television coverage made us all feel like we could curl, like we could bend the stone the way U.S. men’s team captain John Shuster did.

U.S. Men’s Curling Team Captain John Shuster

The sport of curling has officially been a medal event since the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. An ancient Scottish sport, curling involves sliding heavy stones across a sheet of ice to a target of concentric circles called the “house.” Similar to shuffleboard, teams alternate sliding stones to eventually land as many stones as possible closest to the center of the house. Other members on a team can brush the ice with special brooms in the path of a sliding stone to affect its direction or speed, and this frantic sweeping action is often the butt of jokes in media coverage of the sport.

Participation in curling has grown steadily in recent decades and has seen considerable jumps in the wakes of the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Games. In 2002, there were 10,805 curlers in the U.S. Curling Association. By 2006, the sport had grown 12%, and by 2009 the sport grew another 14% to 13,684 curlers. Another growth spurt of about 1,000 curlers is expected for 2010, according to Terry Kolesar, Director of Communications for the U.S. Curling Association. Kolesar attributes much of the sport’s growth in the U.S. to the ample media coverage it has received on cable networks during Olympic Games, sometimes as much as nine hours a day. She points out that the sport is growing in popularity with youth and that the U.S. Curling Association has received perhaps the greatest number of calls and e-mails about starting curling clubs from individuals in the American South ((Personal conversation with Terry Kolesar, 10 June 2010.))

Olympians are the finest examples of athletic achievement—in top physical condition, trained from very early ages, aided by cutting edge technology and nutrition, and often dedicated full-time to their training. A look at Olympic curlers paints a somewhat different picture. I should say first that curlers are very much top athletes in a sport that is deceptively difficult and physically demanding, but a casual glance reveals that curlers are young and old, fit and chubby. Most of the U.S. men’s and women’s team members have day jobs—as teachers, systems administrators, bartenders—and do not enjoy the tournament payouts or high-dollar endorsement deals that other Winter Olympians earn leading up to the Games or after. In essence, curling is a sport nearly anyone can do, and from the looks of it, one could be an Olympian if they just practiced.

Media coverage reinforced this notion. A Colbert Report segment poked fun at curling when Stephen Colbert attempted to try out for the U.S. men’s team. In the segment, Colbert asks captain John Shuster if he could touch his toes, which he replied that he could not. Holding back a smile, Colbert then pointed out to Shuster that he was an Olympic athlete, suggesting that the athleticism required of curlers does not square with the elite physical image of the typical Olympic athlete. Also in the segment, a member of the men’s team challenges Colbert to land his first stone in the house, doubting he can do it. Sure enough, Colbert gets it into the house, winning the bet. This further suggests that curling can be picked up rather easily, a game in which even first timers can find success.

Stephen Colbert Tries Curling

A Simpsons episode about the 2010 Olympics also focused on curling. Homer and Marge take up mixed doubles curling as a new alternative to date night, and Homer points out that the sport is perfect for the both of them because it combines two activities Homer and Marge are respectively good at: bowling and sweeping. Because the skills are familiar—house cleaning and bowling—the Simpsons find success with curling, and the message conveyed to the audience is that anyone can play this sport, even Homer Simpson.



Homer and Marge Master Mixed Doubles Curling.

A fair amount of kitsch surrounded curling during the Games as well, and social media helped to further increase the sport’s visibility to younger audiences. Norway’s men’s team sported colorful harlequin pants, breaking the tradition of otherwise dark colored slacks worn by curlers in competition. The pants spurred many humorous news and morning show segments, and a Facebook fan page dedicated to the pants surfaced. During the Olympics, the pants had nearly half a million fans on Facebook, and today they have more than 630,000 fans.

Team Norway’s Fashion Statement

Team Norway’s Fashion Statement.

Most of us will never be Olympians, not even Olympic curlers. But what the television coverage of curling showed us this past winter is that it is a sport we should try. If you were not on the slopes at a very young age, training every day of the week and consulting the best nutritionists and trainers in the world, you have no chance now to be a world class alpine skier. But many of the Olympic curlers picked up the sport only a decade ago, and they manage to have full-time jobs and families while still training on the side. Curling also requires no snowy mountains or specialized sledding courses, but just a sheet of ice. Thus, anywhere there is an indoor ice rink, there can be a curling club, which makes this sport even more accessible to people in warmer climates. It is truly an accessible sport for all ages, body types, incomes, and occupations, and the most important thing about this past winter’s Olympic coverage is that this message was conveyed to viewers. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to the 2014 Games in Sochi, perhaps as an Olympian.

Image Credits:

1. U.S. Olympic Men’s Curling team. Captain John Shuster Front and Center
2. U.S. Men’s Curling Team Captain John Shuster
3. Team Norway’s Fashion Statement.

Please feel free to comment.




Crowdsourced Advertising: How We Outperform Madison Avenue
Daren C. Brabham / University of Utah

Heinz

A submission to Heinz’s 2007 costly crowdsourcing contest

It is an argument that has become familiar and commonsensical: As technologies, such as digital video cameras, become more widespread, and as the performance of these technologies continues to improve, more users have the opportunity to create media content of professional caliber. With the Web, too, this user-generated content can be shared quickly and easily with the world. Companies have begun to capitalize on this concept and on the assumption that millions of heads are better than one when it comes to producing advertisements. If consumers are increasingly tasked with producing advertisements, then companies are able to cut their operating expenses while still persuading people to keep consuming. But will there be a benefit for audiences in this process? Will the collective of diverse consumers produce innovative commercial content that breaks from the racial stereotypes, talking babies, and slapstick humor of traditional advertising, or will we see more of the same? Though user-generated advertising has immense promise to break the mold, it has yet to do so.

In 2006, Doritos launched the Crash the Super Bowl contest. This contest asked everyday people to create television ads promoting its chip brand, and to upload these ads to a Doritos Web site. Doritos provided its users with tools for creating the commercials, including production shots, logos, music, and sound effects. The public was asked to vote on a handful of finalists chosen by Doritos, and the winning commercial was aired during the coveted and expensive 2007 Super Bowl broadcast. Eventually, all five finalist commercials aired on television. The finalists of the 2006-2007 contest received $10,000 and a trip to Miami for a private Super Bowl party. Doritos has continued the contest, airing user-generated submissions once again during the 2009 Super Bowl broadcast. This time around, finalists each won $25,000.

The top-down contest format, mixed with the open creative process and peer-voting, means user-generated advertising projects function on the crowdsourcing model. Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem solving and production model that drives enormously successful companies like Threadless, InnoCentive, and iStockphoto, as well as some online contests, including the Crash the Super Bowl contest and the Goldcorp Challenge. ((Brabham, Daren C. “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 75-90.)) ((Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. New York: Crown, 2008.)) ((Howe, Jeff. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired June 2006. 30 October 2008 .)) At its heart, crowdsourcing is the broadcasting of problems in the form of an open call to an online community, and it assumes that casting such a wide net will tap the collective intelligence distributed among the Internet’s millions of users.

Crowdsourced advertising is promising for companies. At its best, crowdsourced advertising can reduce companies’ costs, driven by the amateur creative contributions of a product’s fans. Awarding even sizable prizes to individuals who win crowdsourced advertising contests would still undercut the expense required to hire professional advertising talent, and money may not even be the primary motivator for people who submit to advertising contests. Brett Snider, co-creator with Billy Federighi of “Mousetrap,” one of the five finalists in the 2007 Crash the Super Bowl contest, noted that while the prize money was nice, it “isn’t that much money”. ((Brabham, Daren C. “Faces in the Crowd: Brett Snider.” Weblog entry. Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur. 8 March 2007. 30 October 2008 .)) Snider said that he and Federighi are “doing whatever it takes to get some recognition,” with hopes of being “signed by a production company” as a result of the exposure.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0nliPWaCvA[/youtube]

“Mousetrap”

At its best, too, crowdsourced advertising holds the potential to creatively outperform the ad minds of Madison Avenue. Several studies at InnoCentive, a crowdsourced scientific research and development company, indicate that experts in a given area are often outdone by people outside of a domain of expertise. ((Lakhani, Karim R., Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse, and Jill A. Panetta. The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving. Working paper no. 07-050. 2007. Harvard Business School. 30 October 2008 .)) ((Lakhani, Karim R., and Lars Bo Jeppesen. “Getting Unusual Suspects to Solve R&D Puzzles.” Harvard Business Review 85.5 (2007): 30-32.)) And the consistent success of crowdsourced t-shirt design company Threadless, which draws its design ideas from a crowd of amateur illustrators, challenges the notion that any in-house team of professional designers could do better. Professional advertising firms are always, to some extent, removed from the customer base advertisers are trying to reach. To draw persuasive messages from the very audience one is trying to persuade is an ultimate form of marketing research. In theory, customers know what they want, and in practice, the goal with crowdsourced advertising is to get customers to produce it in the first place.

Allowing users to create ads comes with its own set of risks for companies, though. For its 2007 Tahoe, Chevrolet tried a user-generated advertising experiment. Chevy’s intent was for visitors to its Web site to create customized ads with the stock video clips and text generator it provided, and to circulate the ads around the Web, virally. Instead of praise, many of the ads users circulated turned Chevy’s experiment on its head. Visitors to the site took the opportunity to create commercials to “skewer everything from SUVs to Bush’s environmental policy, to, natch, the American automotive industry”. ((Howe, Jeff. “Neo-Neologisms.” Weblog entry. Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur. 16 June 2006. 30 October 2008 .)) Chevy was wise not to try and fight the viral power of the Web and attempt to remove the satirical ads from its Web site, noting that “it’s part of playing in this space”. ((Bosman, Julie. “Chevy Tries a Write-Your-Own-Ad Approach, and the Potshots Fly.” New York Times 4 April 2006. 30 October 2008 .)) These moments of resistance are important, for they illustrate that consumers do not always have to play along with what companies want them to do. The Chevy Tahoe case shows that the customer is really always right, and that they do not have to be cultural dupes all of the time. Though crowdsourcing companies control the process, they do not control the crowd. Just as the Web enlarges the ways companies can sell themselves to consumers, so too does the Web enlarge the opportunity for consumers to resist.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oNedC3j0e4[/youtube]

A contrary take on the Tahoe

Heinz tried a user-generated ad contest in 2007, inviting users to submit videos promoting its ketchup. Heinz received a flood of submissions, and most violated the contest’s technical requirements, were of poor quality, or made the product seem unappealing. Heinz’s own employees waded through the pile of submissions in hopes of finding the best commercials, at a considerable cost to the company. The problem with this approach, as Louise Story wrote in the New York Times, is that the crowdsourced contest ended up being just as costly as hiring a professional advertising firm, if not more. ((Story, Louise. “The High Price of Creating Free Ads.” New York Times 26 May 2007. 30 October 2008 .)) The irony with crowdsourced advertising is that companies must still spend considerable amounts of money with advertising agencies to promote the contest itself. In the end, though, Heinz’s mistake was that it broke from the underlying principle that makes crowdsourcing work: “the crowd finds the best stuff”. ((Howe, Jeff. “5 Rules of the New Labor Pool.” Wired June 2006. 30 October 2008 .)) Heinz should have designed more specific, rigid technical parameters to help automatically weed out ineligible submissions. Then, Heinz should have turned the vetting process of submissions over to the crowd that made the ads in the first place. The magic of Threadless, for instance, is that users who will eventually purchase the t-shirts are involved in the selection of the designs that get printed. Crowdsourced advertising must better maximize the crowd’s ability to select for itself what ads it thinks are best for promoting a product. Turning control over to the crowd can greatly reduce a company’s costs involved in running a user-generated advertising contest.

Crowdsourced advertising is likely to flourish as more companies try to connect with online communities and adopt new methods for getting creative input. The lessons learned from the failures of Heinz, Chevy, and other campaigns shed perhaps more light on the logic of crowdsourcing and the creative (and resistive) capabilities of online communities than on the concept of advertising itself. Good ideas and clever persuasive techniques will remain a constant core of advertising. What will change with the proliferation of new media technologies and the Web is the arsenal of techniques companies will employ to tap the creative talent of consumers as a supplement to traditional, top-down ad campaigns. User-generated advertising methods hold immense promise to produce new ideas at reduced cost, even outperforming professional advertising firms. To make this happen, though, companies will have to learn to let go and let the crowd do the heavy lifting.

Image Credits:

1. A submission to Heinz’s 2007 costly crowdsourcing contest.

Please feel free to comment.