Amazon's Ad Contest

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Amazon has announced a competition for customers to create their own 30-second video commercials for the brand. Two winners will each get $10,000 Gift Cards, and their work will be screened at "a U.S. film festival." 

Forget for a moment that the whole point of a social media campaign like this isn’t to create the ads themselves — in Amazon’s case, it has never needed ads of any kind before, and isn’t likely going to get particularly good ones from the crowd anyway — but rather to use the promotion to get the attention of a wider, non-UGC-creating audience. 

So do you think anybody cares about it? The announcement got picked up in, the virtual ghost of the Seattle PI, and the leading source of the best ways to waste marketing dollars, Brandweek. As of last weekend, there were a whopping 13 posts in the company’s forum on the topic.

I’m surprised that Amazon would do something so dull, but then again, it often does things that are really smart. While other businesses are "experimenting" with the conversational thing by prompting consumer conversations about conversing, Amazon has been quietly building dialogs based on its core function: recommending and selling books. Instead of running ads to make the usual brand promises, it has made its browsing and purchasing functionality just shy of perfect (at least compared to the messy, uneven experiences available at bricks-and-mortar retailers).

The branding we get from Amazon is all about doing things at the site, not trying to frame or describe them. It knows that the conversation aspect of business arises from the conduct of commerce, not parallel or separate from it. Its site isn’t the most beautiful, but it simply works beautifully. This is directionally relevant knowledge for all brands, not just those that retail online.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of opportunities for Amazon to do fun, engaging marketing. I can think of at least three ways it could have conducted a UGC ad contest that would have been far better grounded in the reality and strength of its brand:

First, why not challenge reader communities to create ads for various genres? Get mystery fans to produce a spot, and sci-fi readers another. People usually feel strongly for their favorite sort of books, and are interested in sharing their obsessions with one another. The resulting commercials could be redundantly similar, or diverge so wildly in content and/or construction that they could come from different companies. Who’d care? The point would be to get lots of readers involved, and use that engagement to possible attract potential readers who might get drawn to the Amazon platform by a genre interest vs. a generic one.

Second, why video and the outdated convention of a TV commercial? It’s kind of like the early Ford Motor Co. hosting a competition for the best horse riding. Considering its aspirations for the Kindle Reader, how about a UGC contest for every historic media distribution tool? Celebrate its digital book transmission with spots celebrating radio, kinescopes, dauggerotype photos, even print set by linotype? What about hand-drawn and decorated pages on vellum? This would position digital at the end of some historical path, and probably produce really interesting stuff. Make history the topic, not just personal expressions of the company’s branding.

Finally, wouldn’t the cool challenge be to write something cool and compelling about a company that sells books?

How about those genre fans collaborate on a crowdsourced short story or something? Conversely, it could be a competition to scribble "the perfect sentence." Think poetry, or a variety of written art forms. This UGC would be a lot easier to update and share, and lots more people could get involved. Why not allow every purchaser to contribute (or give shoppers a minimal discount if they pitch in)?

I suspect Amazon’s ad contest is the result of them just not being good at doing this sort of nonsense, which is a credit to their business model. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make it work. 

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