Sunday, May 14, 2006

Talking Back at Advertisers: The Bubble Project

Continuing from the last post, although the actual theme was "Hidden Potential," the issue of community was equally present in everyone's talk.

Ji Lee's Bubble Project provides an excellent example.

How It Started

Lee began as an art director at an international advertising agency. He left because of a growing frustration with priorities among executives that made new ideas almost impossible to implement.

Lee was working on Cheerios campaign for which he and a copyrighter needed a tag line that both pointed to the cereal's trademark yellow box while lauding the value of new flavors, each packaged in a different color.

The tagline: Only the holes taste the same.

At first, everyone loved it. Then an argument over the difference between "taste" and flavor" ensued, and the campaign was canned.

Lee moved on to greener pastures.

Corporate Monologue to Public Dialogue

Lee wanted to find a way to disrupt what he calls the corporate monologue that prevents customers from actively engaging with advertising. Rather than passive recipients of messages, Lee wanted to enable consumers to be active participants in a conversation.

From the Grime, Bubbles Emerge

Lee spent $3,000 printing out the kind of bubbles in which cartoon characters speak. He then began posting them on ads throughout New York City. A few times, he was fined by the police (Lee suggested not to try this in the subway), but he was not deterred.

Lee left the bubbles blank, and passers-by began to interact with ads (meant only for broadcast in one direction) and create engaged commentary (by writing in the bubbles advertisers never meant to include).

Lee then went back to photograph the transformations. He found that interaction fell into a few categories, some of which overlapped: social commentary, sex and drugs, art and philosophy, politics and religion, and media and fashion.

And So?

If corporate advertising creates products based on a fantasy of passive recipients, there is now excellent evidence that their markets do not buy their lines as written. It's not just technology and the Web that makes this true. Clearly, frustrated consumers, bombarded and patronized with broadcasts, grab even the lowest tech options to show they're not buying corporate monologues.

Sometimes even two or three comments could be found in a single bubble. Community can grow anywhere, asynchronously if necessary.

Businesses Beware

If GEL produced one message for business leaders, it is that they reexamine their assumptions about their customers. Rather than asking them to listen to you, give your customers the floor and see what they have to say. You might learn something.

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