OpenBrand (2006)

Human Marketing tool for online graffiti empowering consumers to rewrite banner advertisements
Greasemonkey script with central database

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OpenBrand enables public contribution to online advertising by allowing consumers to re-configure banner advertisements and share those modification with a community. Banner advertisements are the typical form of visual advertising on the web in which a portion of a given web page is devoted to a paid advertisement. OpenBrand utilizes a custom script to enable consumers to post text comments on banner advertisements, using Greasemonkey, an open source scripting layer written for the Firefox browser. The text comments posted by visitors are displayed just below the ad and are saved to a central database on the PLW server at MIT, becoming publicly viewable for all those who have installed the script. In addition, the comments are linked to a forum where participating companies can respond to them. This forum acts as a new costumer service model where the companies have the opportunity to converse with their consumers.

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I developed OpenBrand with Kelly Norton, my colleague in the Physical Language Workshop (PLW), along with Media Lab Director Frank Moss, and Time Warner liaison Peter Meirs during the annual Simplicity prototype-athon in January 2006. Six months later, we showed a working prototype of the system to a room full of Time Warner executives at the Time Warner Building in NY. OpenBrand is an ongoing collaboration with Time Warner and Johnson and Johnson to develop a new open marketing strategy in which consumers have a voice in advertising content and product development.

The project grew out of the Organic Marketing discussion, in which students, sponsors and faculty discussed how marketing can be more ‘humane.’ This approach was a response to growing resistance among Media Lab students to sponsors mining their work for ways to broadcast marketing messages to consumers. Characterizing humane marketing precisely is difficult, but through conversation we identified trust as the key issue. With the complex profusion of identities and relationships online, trust has become a scarce commodity – something that advertisers are just beginning to realize. Traditionally, a one-way transmission was the only way for an advertiser to get their message to a consumer. This strategy does not work as effectively online as it did in older media forms, because it is invasive and inspires little trust where the value of trust is a premium. In contemporary participatory culture, the advertiser competes for attention in a landscape of bloggers and amateur content creators. Instead of focusing on how to transmit messages about products to consumers, the question that companies should be attempting to answer is: what do consumers think of my product? OpenBrand creates a structure for consumers to voice their concerns in an unfiltered way, and for the companies to listen to them.

The dialogue between advertising companies and consumers is a feedback loop that makes it possible for consumers to transform products, or at least, the way they are marketed. The desire to activate participants that might otherwise be passive consumers is inspired in part by the Situationist projects discussed in the preceding chapter. The reappraisal of the Situationist project to develop a system that, in the last analysis, will be used to sell products, is no small irony given the Situationist’s general disdain for consumer culture. After all, the advent of culture defined increasingly by consumption was just what the Situationist were fighting against. However, the Situationist International oversimplified a complex issue in service of their polemical argument. Instead of viewing all consumption as meaningless operation of market-driven culture, OpenBrand, which is one part provocation and one part marketing strategy, asks how we might change the way consumption occurs to make it a meaningful activity for all involved.

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The barriers for consumer participation in OpenBrand are very low. The system requires no performance on the part of participants, and entering text is easy. Posts are entered in an asynchronous text format that has been familiar to people since the advent of the BBS, and posts can be anonymous, which further lowers the barrier of entry to participate. Various incentives exist to use the system. In addition to the possibility of improving products to better suit one’s own needs, the system allows participants to talk back to advertisers, or engage in the catharsis of simply vandalizing the advertisements that assault us daily.

The wealth of sites devoted to consumer reflections on the quality of products (CNet, Epinions, and others) offers ample evidence that consumers tend to engage in this activity even when the only likely incentive is to warn or encourage other consumers about products. Needless to say, giving up valuable ad space while also making themselves vulnerable to critique could discourage many advertisers from implementing OpenBrand. However, in practice, the possibility of instilling trust in the consumer outweighed the initial suspicion with which advertisers approached the project. Having the courage to implement OpenBrand would make it clear that a company trusts the consumer and values her input enough to enter into an unfiltered, public conversation. Normally, when we think about trust in advertising, we ask how the marketer can gain the trust of the consumer. OpenBrand turns the problem on its head, asking instead if the marketer trusts the consumer enough to put the marketing message in their hands.

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