Is it All About Chicken Slavery? How the Subservient Chicken Set the Bar for Online Ads

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2002 was the year people left the American Association of Advertising Agencies Creative Conference proclaiming that online advertising creative sucked.

And they were right.

As a web marketer it was easy to feel pretty low about things back then. In 2002, online advertising experienced 3 consecutive quarters of diminishing budgets and questions about its role lingered after the dot com bust.

But the marketing industry’s doubts about the web didn’t keep consumers from continuing to adopt the Internet in their lives. While online marketing budgets declined, the total Internet population continued to grow. Indeed, in 2002 while Internet media dollars took a 15.8%* dive, there was actually a 10%** increase in the total Internet audience.

Thankfully, this paradoxical trend eventually righted itself and marketers recognized the need to be where their consumers were. On top of the growth in the number of people online, television was facing challenges such as fragmentation of its audiences and the increasing issues posed by TiVo and DVR’s. Online advertising provided an efficient and measurable alternative, with potent tools for gauging its impact and ROI. By 2003 online advertising spending grew by 20.9%, in 2004 it grew 32.5% and in 2005 it grew by 33.7%*** .

While factors such as the growth of the medium’s audience and its measurability certainly were huge drivers of online advertising’s growth in the past few years, let’s not forget an unsung hero contributing to this turnaround story: creative. The advent of new technologies and greater broadband penetration meant that online creatives could evolve their work to better engage audiences. To help foster and showcase the improvements in online creative, publishers established award shows and events, such as Yahoo!’s Big Idea Chair, aimed at celebrating great work in the space.

And then came the chicken.

When Crispin Porter + Bogusky launched the “Subservient Chicken” in 2004 it changed things for the Internet marketing community. Not that there hadn’t been great online creative before then, but at the time people were already paying close attention to the Miami shop because of their innovative work for Mini. Their interactive voyeuristic chicken experience became a part of that buzz in the creative community. The impact of “Subservient Chicken” for online marketing could be compared to the impact Fallon’s “BMW Films” had for Brand Content. Neither were necessarily the first or the best, but both certainly had a high profile which raised the level of conversation in the industry.

“Subservient Chicken” represented a sort of perfect storm for online marketing; it came from the hot shop du-jour, it captured and communicated an idea (Have it Your Way), it helped reframe the Burger King brand as edgy, it was viral, it produced great results, and it was interactive. It created infectious curiosity and laughter. It helped some marketers understand the potential of the Internet. The medium could be used to make someone feel something about a brand.

It also happened to have been video. Video was something that the larger creative community could understand and get excited about. Not that video is the only way to capture a big idea and evoke emotion in people, but considering some of the limitations on online advertising, such as the size of the units or the mindset of the audience, video certainly is a powerful tool in getting the job done. To capture peoples’ attention online you need something as rich as possible (and of course once you’ve captured peoples’ attention you better be both relevant and engaging).

Online has always been a super-efficient way to execute direct marketing tactics, with powerful metrics and ROI measurements, but it is what I’d call “full media experiences” which are unlocking the Internet’s power to connect with people and build brands. Just as the number of people online helped drive online marketing’s growth, the sophistication of Internet audience will hopefully continue to drive the growth of ‘full media’ creative. According to comScore Media Metrix, 56% of the domestic Internet population (about 94 million people) have viewed streaming video online and in 2006, eMarketer predicts that online video advertising is expected to rise to about 2.5% of total online ad spending.

What will clients and agencies do with these new opportunities?

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