Consumers take control of brands on social media with ‘mutant ads’

Sites such as YouTube host videos that often reveal public perception — good or bad

Vancouver Sun May 12, 2011

A commercial shows a young woman extolling the rich flavour of Starbucks’ Frappuccino. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love a frappuccino on a hot summer day,” she gushes. Then a frown. A frappuccino just costs so darn much. How much? Well, enough to feed a child in a Sudanese refugee camp for a week, she says.

Hit pause.

Why would Starbucks make a commercial emphasizing the view that their costly beverage is an overindulgence?

Short answer: They didn’t. The commercial is a fake, part of a growing trend of “mutant ads,” or mock ads created by consumers and posted on social media channels, according to a recent Simon Fraser University study.

An international group of researchers, including Leyland Pitt and Michael Parent of SFU’s Beedie School of Business, examined four examples of mutant ads posted on YouTube to determine how consumers are transforming brands — whether companies like it or not.

“The consequences, I think, are quite profound,” said Pitt. “Brand managers have lost control of the brand in this environment.”

The study, published in the spring issue of Journal of Advertising, suggests that brand managers will have to pay attention to this new digital wave of advertising and figure out how to respond appropriately.

Negative mock ads like the frappuccino commercial can be potentially very damaging for brands, Pitt said.

“In a way, she’s making fun of us as consumers who are willing to pay these prices, but on the other hand she’s taking a serious dig at Starbucks.”

Researchers examined not only the ads themselves, but the conversations that arose in the comments section on YouTube.

Pitt noted there was a large group of viewers who defended Starbucks, in addition to those who agreed with the video’s message.

Not all mock ads are negative. The study identified three basic motivations that consumers have for creating and broadcasting ads: intrinsic enjoyment, self-promotion and perception change. A slick ad for the Apple iPhone created by a group of directors called “the Consultants” has caught the attention of more than 100,000 viewers since it was uploaded to YouTube in 2007.

The video shows people in New York praising the phone’s features in different languages.

The trend of mock ads is only one part of the growing social media shift, whereby more control is placed in the hands of consumers to shape a brand’s image, Pitt said.

“The best thing companies can do is try to abdicate control of the brand and allow the conversation to happen.”

One common mistake is that brands use social media the same way they would have used traditional advertising, Pitt said.

“You can’t just rush in and say, ‘What we were going to tell you on television we’re going to tell you on Facebook ...’

“You’ve almost got to be invited to be a part of the conversation.”
sample videos here also