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.

Everyone Likes Oreos -- in Their Own Way

Kraft can be seen as the latest in a long series of advertisers which have embraced user-generated content as a means of generating buzz around popular brands. Such campaigns seek to tap the passion consumers feel towards cult brands and use it to draw other consumers into the fold.

I confess -- I enjoyed spending time with these entries. A great deal of the interest lies in the diversity of musical traditions represented. This makes me skeptical of the plans to select one winner and feature them on television. Each of these performers embodies different consumer niches and there's a message to be had in seeing the Oreos message translated in so many different musical languages. It seems silly to start with such multiculturalism and end up with a monovocal message -- no matter who ends up winning.

I am not sure whether Oreos represents a cult brand (perhaps it's simply a comfort food that reminds all of us of good times we had as kids) but I know that I am susceptible to peer pressure where Oreos are concerned. Some years ago, I was getting on a TransAtlantic flight to the U.K. and I saw someone sitting across the aisle from me loading a huge carry-on bag filled with Oreo Cookies which she was apparently taking back with her to England. I snorted smugly to the person sitting next to me about the degree to which some people become addicted to their favorite products. But once I got to London, I started craving Oreo cookies and couldn't find them anywhere -- at least at that time a decade or so ago -- and when I got back stateside, the first thing I wanted to do was stop at the local 7/11 and buy some Oreos and milk. I hadn't had one of those cookies for months prior to the trip but somehow traveling through a world without Oreos left me really desperate.

"It's Wal-Mart Time"

Of course, Youtube shows us that consumers will make videos about the most popular brands, even in the absence of formal contests and prizes. Just as fan communities will use the web to build visibility for their favorite media properties, brand communities celebrate their connections to their favorite brands.

Take the case of Wal-Mart -- scarcely a brand that might be expected to generate a high degree of passion or be regarded as hip. Yet, you can find countless examples of amateurs who have made media -- sometimes ironic, sometimes dead serious -- to celebrate the Wal-Mart shopping experience. Many of these videos are shot illicitly with cameras smuggled into various Wal-Mart outlets, often taking advantage of the products on display as unpurchased props. These can be snatch and grab affairs or much more elaborate. This parody of Eminem's song, "Just Lose It," involves elaborate production numbers, presumably filmed under the watchful noses of Wal-mart's ever attentive and friendly welcomers. I'm not sure that the brand managers would jump from joy to see Wal-mart associated with white trash lifestyles, cheap merchandise, shoplifting, and parking lot fisticuffs as occurs in "Wal-Mart Time", but it's hard to deny the vibrancy of this particular video. Even if we don't want to see these spots as actively promoting the brand's own agenda, they have a kind of affection for the store as a public space which contrasts sharply with the anti-corporate messages one associates with the ad-buster or culture jammers movement.

His First Oreo Cookie

And of course, look around a little deeper and one will find similar spots for other products, including a whole range of videos featuring people consuming or playing with Oreo cookies. This one is overly long but it does convey the idea that how one eats Oreos is part of standard cultural lore and that people can have a good time standing around twisting open cookies and dipping them into milk. The message here may be more mundane, more ambivalent, than what you are likely to see on a television commercial. But then, that's how we live with brands in the context of our everyday life. We snuggle down with them at the end of a hard day -- we are unlikely to speak in the hyperbolic language of television spots.

These unregulated consumer-generated segments suggest just how carefully filtered and fully scripted the official competition really is. Traditional notions of brand management stress the careful control over the brand's core messages -- every image, every bit of text gets scrutinized to make sure that it reinforces the core themes of a particular campaign. You can bet that anything that made it this far in the official Oreo jingle competition was put through that same process. The finalists were chosen as much for their reverence for the product as for their musical talent. The radio spot I heard features an unlikely Polka style version but it doesn't show people talking about being allergic to chocolate. We don't even see anything as awful as those William Hung style performances American Idol likes to play over and over on the air.

These other videos probably couldn't get assimilated into the official campaign, but then, they may be all the more powerful as brand statements because they are clearly unauthorized and outside the company's control. This could be another one of those spaces where official and unofficial culture co-exist within the crazy, mixed up world of convergence culture.

I am indebted to CMS graduate student Ilya Vedrashko for directing my attention to the amateur made Wal-mart spots. The Oreo material I found on my own.