A democratic gesture?

Why not enlist the public to do your slogans for you? ’Crowdsourcing’ may amount to a free pitch, but it can make your audience feel involved, says Jim Davies

A man I may be, but a handy man I’m not. I remember many moons ago attempting to put up a simple bathroom shelf and inadvertently drilling straight through a pipe. At that watery moment, I resolved to say bye-bye to DIY. Life with a monkey wrench in my hand and a merry whistle on my lips was clearly not for me. Best leave it to the experts, I decided. It may cost me an arm and a leg, but at least the odds of losing a limb – not to mention drowning, electrocution or divorce – would take a nosedive.

This seems like plain common sense to me, but clearly not everyone goes along with this way of thinking. Increasingly, brands are eschewing the services of seasoned professionals, and looking to amateurs (that is, the ’general public’) to come up with ideas for them.

This usually takes the form of an open competition. Innocent ran one last month on their blog, soliciting witty lines to appear on the ends of its bottles, following the success of last year’s effort – ’Are you looking at my bottom?’. In a similar vein, search-engine marketing specialist Epiphany Solutions asked people to tweet in headlines for its 2010 print ad campaign, an exercise it fashionably describes as ’crowdsourcing’.

Everyone wins – the results are real, earthy and connected, people feel included and delighted if their effort makes the cut. It’s a democratic gesture that fits with the zeitgeist of the blogosphere, where everyone can have their say, even if it’s totally uninformed and misspelt.

As someone who earns his keep peddling words, it pains me to say that most people can write – up to a point. This may be a cheapskate’s way of generating marketing copy, but if there’s enough quantity, chances are you might unearth the odd gem. Having said that, it’s basically a lucky dip. Clients have no control over the creative process, and you just have to trust that something suitable will rise to the top.

When it comes to design, the concept is even more specious. I’ll grant you there have been some successes over the decades. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s K2 telephone box; George Stephenson’s Rocket; Aston Webb’s Victoria & Albert Museum; the London Millennium Footbridge. All worthy design competition winners which have gone on to secure their places in history. We know little of the plucky losers whose efforts were cast aside. Perhaps they emerged stronger for the experience. More likely they were feeling disappointed and slightly used.

Because let’s face it, public competitions are free pitches by any other name. The amount of indignant spluttering from highly qualified design companies at the Mayor’s competition for a new London bus, Locog’s Olympic bid logo, and, most recently, Royal Mint’s commemorative 50p coins for the 2012 games is entirely warranted. It’s a slap in the face, a misplaced assumption that reputations count for nothing, when in fact they tend to have been hard-earned.

It’s all too easy to get sucked into the excitement of a competition. If you have any ego at all, there’s a temptation to pit your wits against the world. I’m not averse to dusting off the odd ’bottom drawer’ strapline myself. So far I’ve won a mobile phone, a set of men’s grooming products and a sandwich maker. But I’m still a bit nonplussed about the holiday in Normandy that got away – how can anyone have bettered ’Bonne Maman – the mother of all jams’?

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