Mark Ritson on branding: Interactivity means potential mauling

A+b+c> 3a or 3b or 3c. It is the formula that explains why integrated marketing is such an important concept. Rather than spend their total budget on advertising, for example, marketers should spread it across a range of channels that can include advertising, but also comprise tools such as product placement, PR and interactive media. The synergies, 360-degree impact and disparate strengths of each channel ensure a better return on investment.

Consider the US launch of Chevrolet's latest SUV - the 2007 Tahoe. Rather than the traditional advertising-heavy launch, Chevy's ad agency Campbell-Ewald created a highly integrated campaign.

First came product placement - the Tahoe was the featured challenge on the opening episode of the fifth series of NBC's The Apprentice. After the show, the interactive kicked in at www.chevyapprentice.com - a site where visitors can complete their own apprentice challenge by creating a 30-second execution for the Tahoe using Chevy-supplied clips, soundtracks and their own text. During the four-week competition, public relations would then promote the site through traditional media, while viral communications would allow users to display their self-created ads online.

Marketers, however, have a passive view of interactivity. In our trade, interactive means visiting a web page or responding to marketing in an active, but intended, manner. We rarely use the term interactive in its true form; where two equal parties meet, share viewpoints and engage.

Interactive marketing is an oxymoron. The first half of the concept stands for equality and discourse, the second for control and monologue.

Chevy's Tahoe campaign is turning out to be a perfect illustration of the paradoxical perils of interactive marketing. Chevyapprentice.com is a huge marketing success, with 400,000 unique visits, 4m page views and more than 22,000 ad submissions. But many of the ads created on the site have adopted entirely inappropriate perspectives. Several self-created ads, for example, use the shots of the huge vehicle to point out that SUVs account for more than 1000 deaths in the US every year. Others openly mock the 'penis envy' of potential Tahoe drivers, who assume a big car means a big man. Even more submissions juxtapose the Chevy-supplied shots of the Tahoe triumphing in desert conditions to bemoan the impact of gas-guzzling vehicles on the environment. 'Our planet's oil is almost gone,' warns one ad, 'You don't need GPS to see where the road leads'. More than 3000 of the submitted ads are openly hostile to SUVs, Chevy and the new Tahoe.

And, of course, these are the ads that are now gaining enormous exposure.

Both the public relations and viral dimensions of the campaign are working well - but they are focusing on these unintended, but very newsworthy, versions.

The anti-Tahoe spots, all featuring lingering product shots and ending with the Chevy logo, made headlines on ABC's Nightline, CNN and in the New York Times last week. The Tahoe is even more of a viral sensation, with the web now awash with the environmental and anti-SUV versions of the 'interactive' Tahoe ad.

Officially, Chevrolet expected some negative reactions. According to spokeswoman Melisa Tezanos, 'You do turn over your brand to the public, and we knew that we were going to get some bad with the good. But it is part of playing in this space.'

Chevy may have just spent millions building brand awareness and a huge amount of negative brand equity for the Tahoe, but at least it can claim to be one of the few companies that now understands the true meaning of interactivity.

30 SECONDS ON ... THE APPRENTICE

- The Apprentice was first aired in the US in 2004 and is hosted by Donald Trump, who is also responsible for the hiring and firing of contestants.

- The fifth series began on 27 February and the finale will take place on 5 June.

- The winner is awarded an 'introductory' one-year contract with a starting annual salary of $250,000 (£141,000) - about $4807.70 (£2713.16) a week.

- The series has been beset by progressively declining ratings: season one had 27.6m viewers, season two had 16.9m, the third series captured 14m and the fourth 11.8m.

- Randal Pinkett, winner of the last series, works at Trump Enterprises in Atlantic City, New Jersey, overseeing the renovation of Trump casinos.

- For the Chevrolet challenge, the candidates were challenged to create a three-hour 'Most entertaining training event' for Chevrolet dealers focused on the 2007 Chevy Tahoe.

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