Why whip out a bazooka, when all you need to do is hit a tin can off a fence?

I’d like to thank Ian Bogost this morning.

His recent article “Things you can’t talk about in a Coca-Cola Ad” (The Atlantic, web, 28 Jan. 2016),  not only was excellent reading first thing this morning, Bogost’s quote toward the middle was something that I wanted to remember.Capture

I honestly don’t know how I missed this article back in January, and as I read on, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bogost didn’t take the usual how-to or how-not-to approaches to User-Generated Content (UGC). How-to’s are needed and helpful, but Bogost goes above and beyond.


Although there certainly are good tips in the article, Bogost’s exploration into brand-controlled UGC was thought provoking and insightful.

There have certainly been times when UGC has been a great success for marketers and PR pros.  Fellow blogger Kerry Coppinger has several articles on successful UGC campaigns.

But there are two things that I personally took away from Bogost’s article.

First, controlled UGC can go a bit too far, limiting the enjoyable factor that UGC is supposed to have.  With UGC, the user is supposed to be able to have a little creative freedom.  It’s okay for a brand to limit UGC to discourage “consumer misdeeds” (Bogost). There is no room for UGC that is in bad taste, offensive or distracts from the intended message of the brand. But, as Bogost shows in the example of Coca-Cola’s recent GIF the Feeling PR campaign, too much brand-controlled UGC can be flat and boring.

The second thing Bogost made me consider, was how dangerous UGC can be.

Marketers and public relations managers would be wise to heed Bogost’s advice: “User-generated content has always been terrorist media.” Jot it down; set it to memory.

Because, how many times has UGC hijacked a perfectly good PR idea?  Too many to count, I’m sure.

Anyone remember the NYPD’s foray into UCG?  Let me refresh your memory.

Nearly two years ago, someone had the brilliant idea that the New York Police Department could use UGC to create a little goodwill among the citizens of NYC.  The PR teams failed to brainstorm on all the ways this could go wrong.  They had visions of idyllic pictures being posted on social media of citizens, and maybe even tourists, posing with their friendly NYC police officer, using the hashtag #myNYPD.  The campaign began just as the PR team expected with smiling people posing happily with members of the NYPD.

But the PR team failed to read the signs of changing times.  They failed to take into account that a lot of people in the U.S. were cruising for a bruising, and willing to air it all across social media.

The #myNYPD campaign quickly turned against the NYPD, with people posting pictures with the hashtag, alright.  But instead of the feel-good photos money just can’t buy a PR department, photos showing members of the NYPD in compromising situations popped up, complete with sarcastic and very unpleasant comments.

Even though police brutality has always been a hot-button issue, the #myNYPD campaign was probably one of the major catalysts toward viral video sharing of controversial police cases. Things were already heating up, swaying public opinion away from police officers since general criticism of the way police handle crimes committed against blacks in the  of 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting by neighborhood watch person, George Zimmerman.

By the time 2014 rolled around, police departments around the U.S. could stand a little good PR, hence the campaign.

But, I cannot stress enough how bad of an idea it was for the PR team to use UGC.

  • Why not use some better-controllable message?
  • Why whip out a bazooka, when all you need to do is hit a tin can off a fence?  
  • If all the PR team wanted to do was show friendly, photogenic police officers assisting little old ladies across the street, why use UGC at all?
  • Aren’t there better tools in the PR toolbox better suited for the job, especially when you never know how people will use UGC?

Because as Bogost says in his article, “(But) the Internet is no place for talk of “intended purpose,” . . . The Internet is a giant cat that chews up intended purpose and makes videos of itself hacking them up again.”

So, recall that image the next time you’re thinking about using UGC.  It can be done, but carefully consider all of your options, weigh the PR costs ahead of time, and pay attention to the events that might hijack your UGC campaign before launching.  It could save you from having a total PR disaster to clean up.

Up for Discussion:

  1. If UGC can cause vulnerabilities for a brand, what are the benefits of using it at all?
  2. Which is better, uncontrolled UGC or controlled UGC?
  3. How can controlled UGC make or break a brand?
  4. Is controlled UGC too boring for audiences and consumers?



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