IT'S AMATEUR HOUR at the Super Bowl this year. On Sunday, 90 million television viewers on CBS will be subjected to commercials made by "You"--Time magazine's Person of The Year for 2006. Three Super Bowl XLI advertisers--Doritos, the National Football League, and Chevrolet--will all be running 30 second commercial spots made by amateurs. The Web 2.0 revolution in user-generated content has infiltrated the American living room. These amateur creators, who Time praise as "people formerly known as consumers," are now providing the entertainment at the biggest event in the media calendar.
This is not good news. The shift from professionally produced to user-generated advertising makes us poorer in both economic and cultural terms. The arrival of user-created commercials at Super Bowl XLI represents the American Idolization of traditional entertainment--the degeneration of professional content into a "talent show" for amateurs.
We, the conventional television audience, are certainly losers in this new fashion for user-generated advertisements. We have traditionally watched Super Bowl commercials to be entertained by memorable ads. Often, these commercials are more memorable than the game. Occasionally, they even represent significant cultural moments in American history. Few of us, for example, can remember who won Super Bowl in 1984 (Los Angeles Raiders 38, Washington Redskins 9), where it was played (Tampa), or who sang the national anthem (Barry Manilow). But most of us can remember the Chiat/Day produced, Ridley Scott directed, commercial for the Macintosh computer, with its Orwellian subtext and its indelible explanation of why "1984 wasn't going to be like 1984".
Don't expect a repeat of Chiat/Day and Ridley Scott's creative genius during Super Bowl XLI. Doritos are already previewing the five finalists in their competition on the Yahoo! website. One commercial features a chip-chomping rock climber falling off a mountain; another has a giant mouse bursting out of a wall, scavenging for cheese-flavored chips; a third has a young woman falling over because she's looking at her chips and not the road. All five of the finalists contain the same predictable, dorm-room aesthetic, low production qualities, and poor acting. The brain trust at Doritos deserves thanks for not exposing us to the other 1,100 entrants.
WHY IS THE WORK of the amateur of a lesser quality than professionally made content? There's the intrinsic talent of a lifelong professional, such as Ridley Scott, of course. Then there's the financial resources made available to the professional content creator. Back in 1984, Apple paid Chiat/Day $1.6 million to produce their Mac ad. Today, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the average professionally-produced 30-second spot costs $381,000. In contrast, wedding photographer Jarod Cicon, one of the five finalists in the Doritos competition, estimates that his 30-second ad cost $150 to produce.
Web 2.0 advocates, who are apologists for user-generated content (such as Chris Anderson, the author of the best-selling book The Long Tail), promise that the amateurs of the new digital democracy can create the same quality content for a tiny proportion of the traditional cost. But this simply isn't true. Watch the Doritos commercials side-by-side with some classic Super Bowl commercials, such as the Budweiser "Frogs" (1995) or "Cedric" (2001) spots. It's like tasting a homemade elderberry wine after a glass of the best Cabernet.
THE ECONOMICS of amateur hour at the Super Bowl are disturbing. If today's typical commercial costs $381,000 and an amateur advertisement costs $150 to produce, then what happens to the money which isn't spent on the creative? Given that Doritos are awarding $10,000 to the five finalists in their talent show, that still leaves some $331,000 on the table. To use a fashionable Web 2.0 term, the professional creator is being "disintermediated." CBS doesn't lose anything because they still charge Doritos over $2.5 million for the 30 second spot. Instead, it's the professional creator--the scriptwriter, cameraman, audio expert--who is being squeezed out of the economy by this infestation of amateur content.
Markets are markets and there's no reason to cry for simply for the loss of jobs in one sector, so long as new efficiencies are being created. But in this instance, the loss of jobs is accompanied by worse, not better products. This is true across the media industry and not just in the advertising business.
As Columbia University Economics professor Jagwish Bhagwati has argued, digital technology is undermining the wages of the American middle class. Web 2.0 technologies which enable amateurs to make dumbed-down replicas of professional work are particularly responsible for what Bhagwati calls the "tsumani" of downward pressure on wages created by new technology.