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July 16, 2010, 11 a.m.

No, seriously: What the Old Spice ads can teach us about news’ future

BrandFlakesforBreakfast might have put it best: “…If you live in a cave, you need to be aware of the fact that Old Spice owned the internet yesterday.”

Indeed. How the brand did that owning is fascinating (and, if you haven’t seen it already, ReadWriteWeb’s detailed description of that process is well worth the read); essentially, Old Spice’s ad agency spent an entire day curating the real-time web, writing and producing videos based on that curation, and posting them to YouTube — where, again, the real-time web could do its thing. It was, as Josh pointed out, the advertising world’s answer to the Demand Media model of content creation: research, churn, lather, rinse, repeat.

And — here’s where Old Spice parts ways with Demand Media — pretty much everyone seems to love it. (As one web metrics firm noted, “We took a look at some of the most explosive viral videos we’ve measured, including Bush dodging Iraqi shoes, Obama giving his electoral victory speech, and Susan Boyle, and found that in the first 24 hours, Old Spice Responses outpaces all of them.”) It’s a popularity, notably, that seems to bridge the culture. The Atlantic wondered whether the campaign augurs the future of online video, while Reddit posted an open letter declaring, “Ok, you won us all over Mr. Old Spice Man. On reddit…our demographic is notoriously difficult to crack. And hell, you cracked it well, on our home turf which we patrol carefully, and we liked it.” Online denizens from Alyssa “big on Twitter” Milano to 4chan — yes, that 4chan — have also apparently hopped onto Mr. Old Spice Man’s noble steed.

So (putting aside the fact that we now live in a world where the members of 4chan and Alyssa Milano have only one degree of separation between them, and thus that End Times approach) we have to wonder: What might the Internet-owning power of the towel-clad spokesman hint about, yes, the future of news?

There’s the obvious, of course: the fact that the ads are personalized. That their content is created for, and curated from, the conversational tumult of the web — “audience engagement,” personified. Literally. The videos are, in that sense, a direct assault on top-down, author’s-artistic-vision-driven, mass media broadcast sensibilities.

But they’re an assault on mass media in another way, as well. The real hook of the videos isn’t the OSM’s awesomely burly baritone, or the whimsy of his monologues (the scepter! the bubbles! the fish!), or the postfeminist irony of his Rugged Manliness, or any of that. It’s the fact that we’re seeing all those things play out dynamically, serially, in (semi-)real-time. And: in video. Video that, though laughable in production quality when compared to most of its made-for-TV counterparts, is literally laughable in a way that most of those counterparts simply are not. The ads are weird and wonderful and hilarious. And the made-for-YouTube gag is part of the joke; the poor production value, relatively speaking, is part of the point.

In other words: The process of the videos, here, matters as much as the product. (Sound familiar?)

So, then, here’s the news angle. We often, in our focus on content (the news itself) and context (the newsgathering project, engagement with users, etc.), forget the more superficial side of things: the presentation framework of news content as its own component of journalism’s trajectory. The question of production value — essentially, to what extent do consumers care about high-quality production in the presentation of their news? — is still very much an open one in online journalism, and one that probably doesn’t get enough attention when we think about what the news will become as we adapt it to the digital world. That’s particularly so for video. Any given MediaStorm video, say, with its expertise and artistry, is likely going to be superior, aesthetically, to any given YouTube video. The question, though, is how much better. And whether, for cash- and time- and staff- and generally resource-strapped news organizations, the value added by finesse justifies the investment in it.

The Old Spice videos are a particularly instructive case, since, for journalistic purposes, they essentially lack content; they’re marketing messages, not news. Measured against the high-production-value ads on TV, they allow for a nice little side-by-side comparison of audience reception. And judging by the campaign’s expansive popularity, audiences not only don’t seem to mind that the ads are relatively low in quality; they actually seem to like that they are. The straight-to-YouTube thing is not just a means to virality, or an implied little irony; it’s also part of a broader shift: low(-ish) production value as a ratification of, rather than a threat to, the content in contains. When it comes to news video, slickness can be a drawback; in an increasingly UGC-driven world, it’s video that’s grainy (and bumpy, and poorly framed, and generally amateurish) that tends to imply authenticity. As we move, in our news, from vertical structures to horizontal, our expectations about images themselves are moving along with us.

Does that mean that news organizations should abandon high-quality video production, if they’re already engaged in it? Or that their sites should eschew lush data visualizations or artistic photography? No, certainly not. But it does mean that we should be cognizant of production value as an independent factor in journalism — one that can and should be open to moderation and experimentation, either for better or, when warranted, worse. Quality content tends to speak for itself; the Old Spice ads, with their churned-out, on-the-fly, Flipcam-y feeling, are reminders that consumers recognize that better than anyone. Not all journalism needs to be slick or sharp or beautiful; some of it might actually benefit from a little messiness. And from, yes, a little spice.

POSTED     July 16, 2010, 11 a.m.
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