Oreos, “Wal-Mart Time”, and User-Generated Advertising

Driving around earlier this week, I happened to hear the distinctive voice of American Idol‘s Randy Jackson (“Yo, Dawgs”) on my radio, telling listeners about a national contest for the best amateur rendition of the classic “Oreos and Milk” jingle.

Jackson’s participation in an advertising campaign is hardly surprising in and of itself– after all, we got to watch Simon Cowell endorse Vanilla Coke and we’ve seen Ford run a series of spots featuring Idol contestants which become part of what fans evaluate as they judge who should win the talent competition. From the start, American Idol has been closely tied to a range of new marketing and branding strategies.

Upon further investigation, I found the Oreo site online. It turns out that Kraft Foods, the company which makes those delightful chocolate wafers with the vanilla cream inside, is hosting a national competition to identify musical groups who can put their own spin on the advertising ditty. The winning group receive $10,000, the opportunity to record an Oreo radio commercial and hang out with Randy Jackson in Los Angeles in August.

A panel of judges winnowed down the original submissions and now the public is being invited to go to the web and vote on the five finalists. There’s Acappella Gold, a group of soccer mom types in zebra-skin pants suits, doing it up barbershop quartet style. There’s the Chris Allen Band which gave the song a bit of Reggae backbeat and Odysy who perform it with a mix of hip hop and street harmony. The Oreo Cousins do it as a blues number and The Three belt it out to acoustic guitar and percussion.

Each of the videos has the ear-marks of amateur made media — the kind of stuff the RIAA wants to take off of YouTube: most of them have fixed camera positions, poor lighting, and are shot in rec-rooms or other cluttered domestic spaces. The performances that made it this far are pretty good — each has its own flavor and each set of performers seems to be really enjoying what they are doing. The website features a selection of the folks — good and bad — who got cut from the competition along the way.

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Convergence and Divergence: Two Parts of the Same Process

ReaderMorgan Ramsay flaged a column by Al and Laura Ries which argues that we should be thinking less in terms of convergence and more in terms of divergence. Here’s part of what they say:

Convergence captures the imagination, but divergence captures the market…. Why divergence and not convergence? Because convergence requires compromise and divergence satisfies the evolving needs of different market segments…. Irreconcilable differences will always doom such convergence concepts. Television is a “passive” medium; the Internet is an “active” medium. A couch potato will never put up with the complexities of interactive TV and an Internet junkie will never surf the Net with an awkward box designed for another purpose. Like automobiles, different market segments demand different products… Companies today are pouring billions of dollars into such convergence concepts as smart phones, smart gas pumps, smart homes, smart watches, smart clothing, smart refrigerators, smart toilets and smart appliances. This is a tragic waste of time and money. Companies would be more innovative, more profitable and more successful if they would focus on the opposite idea: divergence.

Here’s my response. This may get a little more theoretical than some of my posts.

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More on Firefly and the Long Tail

With apologies to Steven Colbart, let’s take this out of the realm of faith-based reasoning and resort to facts.

Reader Reinier Zwitserloot estimates:

There are about 50,000 or so fans, and I’m being generous. Let’s be very amicable and say each ep sells 150,000 times. That’s 300,000 income.

I was skeptical that this estimate was accurate or gave a full picture of what we know about the Firefly audience, so I e-mailed a friend in the television industry to see whether he had access to more reliable numbers. So here’s what he had on the dvd sales:

The Hollywood Reporter reported last July (“Wheedon flock ready for ‘Firefly’

resurrection” by Anne Thompson, 22 July) that the DVD set of all 13 episodes had sold more than 200,000 copies. There is an unconfirmed number posted at WHEDONesque.com (“Firefly listed in top 1 DVD sets on FOX.com,” thread started by Chris Bridges, 31 March 2006) from someone named “The Hey” that put the sales at 2.5 million on 1 April 2006 — but that seems really high. I’d guess it’s somewhere in the middle, with an uptick last summer/early fall ignited by SERENTITY’s release.

So let’s assume that the 2.5 million number is over the top (unless someone can show otherwise) but we can see that there were at least 200,000 copies of the DVD set sold prior to the films release.

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Web Comics and Network Culture

I am participating in a very interesting conversation about digital storytelling, visual culture, and web 2.0 over at Morph, the blog of the Media Center, which describes itself as “a provocative, future-oriented, nonprofit think tank. In the dawning Digital Age, as media, technology and society converge at an accelerating pace in overlapping cycles of disruption, transition and change, and in all areas of human endeavor, The Media Center facilitates the process by gathering information and insights and conceiving context and meaning. We identify opportunity, provide narrative, stimulate new thinking and innovation, and agitate for dialog and action towards the creation of a better-informed society.”

The Media Center has asked a fairly diverse group of media makers and thinkers to participate in a “slow conversation” to be conducted over the next month or so about creativity in the new media age. So far, the most interesting post has come from Daniel Meadows, currently a lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, about work he has done with the British Broadcasting System to get digital stories by everyday people onto the air. He provides links to a great array of amateur media projects. I haven’t spent as much time following these links as I would like but it’s a great snapshot of the work being done in digital storytelling.

What follows are some excerpts from my own first post in the exchange which uses webcomics to explore some of the ideas in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, a book I referenced here the other day.

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Do Snakes or Fireflies Have Longer Tails?

Reader Avner Ronen compares the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon with what happened to Serenity. He notes:

I’m looking forward to this movie as much as the next net.geek, but I don’t expect as much of a box-office surprise as many seem to be anticipating, because I’ve seen it before.

What am I referring to? Serenity. It would be hard to beat the online buzz Serenity was getting, and sometimes it seems like it’s difficult to find a blogger who isn’t a fan of the prematurely cancelled series Firefly, but all of that buzz and a good deal of critical acclaim still couldn’t get people into the theaters.

He may well be right – it is very easy living at the hub of digital culture to imagine that all of the buzz we are hearing is generalizable across the population as a whole. But let’s look for a moment at what happened with Firefly/Serenity and then, I will try to explain why I think Snakes on a Plane is in a somewhat different situation.

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Further Reflections on YouTube vs. RIAA

University of Chicago law professor Randy Picker was nice enough to pass along a link to what he has written – from a legal perspective – about the potential threat which the RIAA may pose to those folks who want to post lip-sync or karaoke songvids on YouTube:

For the music industry, this is a not-so-golden oldie and the conflict illustrates the persistent gap between actual law and the public’s knowledge of that law and, frequently, perceptions of fairness. On these facts, far from being crazy or somehow a misuse of copyright, I think that music copyright holders have a straight-forward action against YouTube…. this is how we pay for music in the real world: different uses, different prices, and until we change the law and come up with a better way to pay for music, you should assume that the music industry is going to show up one day and knock on YouTube’s door.

I don’t pretend to be a lawyer so my views on the law should be taken with a grain of salt. I am pretty sure though that Picker is correct that the RIAA is almost certainly well within its legal rights to take action to shut down this use of its music via YouTube.

That said, I feel that we should be paying closer attention to that “persistent gap between actual law and the public’s knowledge of that law and frequently, perceptions of fairness.” True, ignorance of the law is no excuse but a democratic state should always be concerned if the gap between the law and the public’s perception of fairness grows too great. (And I would suggest that gap is growing hourly at the present moment).

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Fun vs. Engagement: The Case of the Great Zoombinis

Scott Osterweil came to work with the Comparative Media Studies program a little less than a year ago as the head designer for the work we are doing through the Education Arcade — primarily focusing on a collaboration we are doing with Maryland Public Television called Learning Games to Go.

The Learning Games to Go project will develop handheld and mobile games to help young children master basic math and literacy skills. We were very lucky to get Osterweil to work on this project, since he is an experienced games professional, best known for his work on Logical Journey of the Zoombinis and its sequels. The Zoombinis games came out some years back but still crops up regularly when we ask teachers to identify examples of great educational games.

Osterweil is interviewed for the first of a series of podcasts about the project, which just went up this week.

He addresses throughout the interview what has become one of the most vexing problems in terms of convincing teachers and parents that games can be learning activities — the fact that games are often, on purpose, fun.

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YouTube vs. The RIAA

This is another in a series of posts highlighting trends which threaten our rights to participate in our culture.

According to a report published in the Boston Phoenix this week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) may soon take aim at the amateur lip syncing and Karaoke videos which circulate on YouTube. Spokespeople from the RIAA, which has never been slow to assert the broadest possible claims on intellectual property, have so far not confirmed the claims that they will be using their power to force YouTube to take down such videos.

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Brain Dump: Games as Branded Entertainment

Here are some stray tidbits which came across my desk in the past week or so which warrant your attention:

Games as Lifestyle Brands

David Edery, who is one of the smartest observers of the business side of the games industry (I should know — he works in the CMS program with me as our key corporate relations person), published an article this week in Next Generation \which explores whether game companies can join the ranks of so-called “lifestyle brands,” such as Harley-Davidson or Apple — that is, brands which transcend individual products and seem to embody a particular taste or philosophy. His examples were EA Sports and RedOctane/Harmonix in the music game sector. We might add Maxis as a company which people associate with intelligent simulation style games. To put this in context, though, a recent industry study found that only 2 percent of gamers consciously consider the publisher or developer in deciding to purchase a particular title.

For another take on this issue, read CMS graduate student Sam Ford over at the Convergence Culture Consortium (c3) blog.

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The Snakes on A Plane Phenomenon

I am watching with great interest the growing hubbub about the new suspense/disaster film, Snakes on a Plane, scheduled for release later this summer and expected by many to yield some of the strongest opening weekend grosses of the season. In many ways, we can see the ever expanding cult following of this predictably awful movie as an example of the new power audiences are exerting over entertainment content.

Here’s what I think is going on here:

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