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An Epidemic Of Losers
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Awards And Contests Are Easy Engagement, But Are They Smart Marketing?

The content creation business is thriving these days, especially now that the Conventional Wisdom has all but freed it from having any direct connection or relevance to actually selling anything. Instead, one of the new deliverables of today's marketing is often a contest of some sort, which I think is even worse than not saying anything meaningful about a brand.

By definition, the promise of winning turns most customers into losers, yet awards, drawings, and other competitions seem to be among the first pitches coming out of agencies these days. Pepsi wants doers of good works to compete for funds. Audi will give an architecture firm its Audi Urban Future Award. Norton has hired rapper Snoop Dogg to get aspiring artists to record videos about computer security (hosting UGC video contests seems to be popular with many brands).

There's been a broader contestification underway in society foe a while now. Game shows have given way to American Idol-type shows for everything from dancers to weight loss. Survivor is a contest, as is The Apprentice. Cable TV is filled with shows that throw a group of numbnuts into a situation where they have to learn how to have manners, take care of themselves (or whatever), or risk being ejected from the programs.

Every news report is a contest of sorts, as what’s sure to make headlines are the results of polls and surveys, not to mention the fact that any tidbit that gets presented to the public had to win a competition to be deemed worthy of their attention. Online purchasing tools like Groupon are competitions (the game is to aggregate enough buyers to win the discount).

Do we marketers really want to encourage this behavior?

When we talk to customers about the possibility of winning something...anything...we’re training them to expect that 1) they'll somehow be exceptions to whatever rules make it excruciatingly improbable that they will win or, at best, 2) that brand benefits are something to be dolled out in different portions depending on the luck of the draw. A contest is "engagement" only insomuch that content and actions are agnostic when it comes to references back to brands; rather, contests are contests, whether hosted (or outsourced, more likely) by a soda pop or automobile company. Brands can't "own" competitions.

Worse, even when competitions prompt some sort of content or action that relates to the business of the hosting brand, it really has no ultimate or lasting effect on said brands' marketing. Remember all that nonsense about UGC and regular 'ol folks creating marketing? Turns out that consumers don't really want or need other consumers to create ads for them, and even though you can successfully fill up a YouTube page with lots of inane video it doesn't take the place of providing real, useful, company-created marketing information.

Contests fit in with the belief that paid commercial speech -- i.e. spending money to tell consumers things that have meaning for them -- can be replaced with content-free, consumer-created, sales irrelevant campaigns. I just can't fathom the cost/benefit analysis that says that promising and then disappointing 99.9% of your customers constitutes a business proposition. It's just too damn easy to pretend that all we need to do is entertain consumers, but how again does anybody get paid for doing it (other than the agencies promoting the nonsense)?

Behavior matters, but brands need to prompt behavior that matters. Entering a contest is a meaning-free activity; it's empty social calories, only worse...I think it cheapens brands. People might be consumed with contests in every other waking moment of their lives, but shouldn't brands consistently tell them things that are consistent, meaningful, and useful?

Sponsoring an epidemic of losers isn't a winning marketing strategy.

Added: 2nd September 2010

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