Monthly Archives: July 2008

Did Seth Godin Steal My Deal?

The inimitable Harper Reed from Skinnycorp (which owns Threadless), just sent me a rather dire email. The title was “Did Seth Godin just Steal your Deal?” And then there was link to Seth Godin’s new, upcoming book which is called “Tribes: We Need You to Lead.”

Well, gee. I dunno. Seth’s new book is about tribes, apparently, although there isn’t a lot of info on it available just yet. The copy on the book does, however, say this:

“According to Godin, Tribes are groups of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other. Tribes make our world work, and always have. The new opportunity is that it’s easier than ever to find, organize, and lead a tribe. The Web has enabled an explosion of all kinds of tribes — and created shortage of people to lead them. This is the growth industry of our time. Tribes (the book) will help you understand exactly what’s at stake, and why YOU can and should lead a tribe of your own.”

Well, okay, a definition is a good start. But a group of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other could also be the definition of a community, a group, a hierarchical organization, a network, or any variation or manifestation of one of these things. A number of very respectable scholars like Michel Maffesoli and Bernard Cova, not to mention armies of anthropologists, have come up with careful and nuanced definitions to help differentiate the idea of a tribe from those other concepts. But it’s just Amazon back cover blurb, so I’d suggest we all wait for the final version.

In general though, and this doesn’t have anything to do with this book or with Seth Godin’s work, I always try to read pop business books to see whether the author has taken some care in writing them in a somewhat intellectually meaningful way which would include thinking about defining terms, being precise about what actions are being advocated and why, and using and crediting the work of others (literary and scientific) who have thought about these ideas before them. There are still few pop authors who do this, but they are few and far between. Even academics often fall into these bad habits when they write popular books.

I obviously can’t write a book review of a book that hasn’t yet been distributed (unless Mr. Godin kindly sends me a copy). The book does look intriguing. Some other popular books that deal with this big topic of tribes, marketing and consumers, are Alex Wipperfurth in his very solid Brand Hijack book, or of Douglas Atkin in The Culting of Brands (both of whom develop and talk extensively about marketing to “tribes”; Atkin cites a number of other authors, including Bernard Cova).

I’m not particularly enamored of the subtitle for this Tribes book. “We need you to lead us.” To me, it insinuates that tribes crave marketers. Yeeks. I’d say that some tribes, perhaps many tribes, do not want to be “led” by some all-knowing business manager or marketer. Actually, according to Mr. Godin’s blog, he is trying to promote this book by leading his own Godin tribe. I think that he is used to leading his own “Brand tribe”–and in fact I can see how marketing managers be happy to anoint a charismatic author and speaker into that role. But…

I’d argue that many other real-world brand tribes won’t ever be led by marketers. A deep, grounded understanding of tribes and what they are, and the social and cultural conditions that create and sustain them, leads to that contention. It could also lead to a much more precise, delimiting, useful, and grounded definition of what a tribe consists of. You can see I’m stretching here…offering a critique of a subtitle. The actual book might be a lot more nuanced than this. I’ll let you know.

Here is the book cover.


I just want to return to Harper’s question about Mr. Godin “stealing my deal.” Obviously, there was nothing stolen. The word tribes belongs to everyone. And the phenomenon of communities, tribes, gatherings, pow-wows, or whatever else you want to call this micro-collectivization of society is a happening big enough and important enough that many of us should be writing about it, and will have lot to write about for years to come.

So on this, I say bravo to Mr. Godin for seeing fit to write about such an important topic. I agree, wholeheartedly, that it deserves our careful attention.

To me, Harper’s question has the ring of asking a journalist whether they got scooped on their story. It’s also a question I hear a lot from Ph.D. students and other scholars who are worried about their ideas being stolen.

The thing is, academia isn’t journalism. When a journalist breaks a big story like Watergate, it’s broken. But academics develop theories, and others continue to develop them, and then the theories get overturned, and brought back, construct developed from there, and so on. There are many ways to make a contribution besides being the first one in with some big new construct or theory or relationship. In fact, sometime you can be later to the field and make the biggest contribution of all.

That said, one of the things that powers the development of our understanding as a civilization is the fact that people get credit for their ideas. In the world of intellectual property, as we all know, there are major shifts and battles underway, covered nicely in the work by Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and others. Stealing others’ ideas or content is for the most part seen as a bad thing. And let me be clear here that I’m not insinuating anything here about Mr. Godin’s upcoming book, which I have not read; I’m talking in general about a pet peeve, a tension between academic writers and popular business writers.

Just like a patent holder likes to have a license paid on the use of their property, the people who originally think of and develop an idea like to be cited, to be given credit for their heavy intellectual lifting. Most of course want to have their ideas and terminology reach wider circulation. But it never ceases to amaze me how many writers in the popular business press rip each other off, and ignore established popular and academic work that tackles the same topics, often in very similar ways.

So, in general, as you read popular business books, try to see where the author has worked with other people’s ideas, and where credit has been given. For any book on Consumer Tribes or tribal marketing, I think the single person whose work is most important is Bernard Cova, who has been working with these ideas and concepts (building on Michel Maffesoli’s important theoretical work and developing it in the marketing context) for over a decade.

Two key citations for this topic are:

  • Bernard Cova (1997), Community and consumption: Towards a definition of the “linking value” of product or services, European Journal of Marketing, 31 (3/4), 297 – 316
  • Bernard Cova and Véronique Cova (2002), Tribal marketing: The tribalisation of society and its impact on the conduct of marketing, European Journal of Marketing, 36 (5/6), 595-620

To talk about marketing to tribes or tribal marketing and not cite Bernard Cova would be like talking about brand communities and not citing Al Muniz and Tom O’Guinn. That’s my opinion and I’ll stand by it.

Now is it fair to expect consultants and other laymen to act like professors, to read deeply and broadly and to cite like scholars? That’s a fair question. I think that doing so is more possible and simpler than ever, because of the Internet and the way it makes information accessible. Certainly, the expectation about an author writing a book about, say, coffee marketing, would be that the author would read all the books that show up on Amazon with coffee marketing in their title or subtitle. And then probably, to go the extra mile, to read some of the articles that show up on Google Scholar from a similar search, and from a good scouring of the footnotes and references in those book that were found on Amazon (and in one’s local library). I don’t think that is holding any non-fiction author to too high of a standard.

Similarly, I don’t think academics can ignore good books simply because they are popular or written for a broader audience. On the contrary, I think it’s our job to try and locate the good, novel, practical ideas in these books and bring them to an academic audience. This has been done quite a bit by scholars in my field. For example, a number of us have written about Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, and cited it quite extensively. Ditto Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. And Thomas Franks’ books, like The Conquest of Cool.

As for whether I or anyone else can still write a book about this topic of consumer collectivities on the Internet, there’s little doubt here. The phenomenon is way, way, too big for a single book, or even a single series of volumes of books (need I mention Manuel Castells’ masterwork The Information Age volumes here?).

So, to answer Harper’s question, no way. In fact, Seth Godin is making my deal. Whatever is in his upcoming book about tribes, he’s helping all of us who are interested in this important topic.

I’m looking forward to reading this new book, some other new ones (another brand-new volume called Electronic Tribes also looks very interesting--thanks to Ingeborg Kleppe for the heads up on this one), and to continuing to think about this fascinating time we find ourselves in and the phenomena it presents us.

Communal Confessions

Communal Confession Online

I just ran across an interesting piece of research reported in BusinessWeek. This research, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, found that people are more willing to disclose the truth about their bad behaviors when they’re asked about them casually online, rather than through a more formal survey.

Now, isn’t that interesting.

The researchers (George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, is reported to be the co-author) found that 50% of people who were asked “Who BAD are U?” admitted to cheating on their taxes. But when sent to an official looking site with formal insignia and privacy notices, on 25% admitted to cheating.

I have to wonder if that degree of honesty tells us something about the internet and about our use of research techniques. The study was interpreted to mean that we get more honest answers “from the MySpace generation” (there’s a deliberate generational difference being investigated here) using an informal and even playful type of questioning style rather than a more formal one.

Now take this to the next level. What does this study suggest about all the naturally-occurring conversations going on out there in cyberspace? Is this just Millennials or gamer gens or MySpacers? Just the under-25 crowd, or is there a sea change adrift, matie? Might a lot of these informal consumer-to-consumer exchanges online exhibit more honesty and more validity that a lot of the more formal survey work? Consider which one–informal observation or formal surveys–would be a better way to assess consumer opinion?

I don’t know if the big online companies like Buzzmetrics and Cymfony have noticed this study (or of course the smaller-smarter-quicker upstarts likes MotiveQuest and Netbase), but I think this research definitely supports their general research approach.

Using informal, unobtrusively-obtained online conversations seems to produce more valid, more honest, more real, more multifaceted consumer opinion data than online or offline surveys. That’s the implication I draw from this. That’s a core contention behind netnography as well. If you work with better data, you’re going to get better results, it’s that simple.

I couldn’t find any publication data on the Loewenstein study. If anyone has further info on it, I’d be grateful and will publish it here. I’d also love to see estimates anyone has on the amount of money currently spend on online and offline surveys, versus more observational techniques like webtrawling/content analysis and ethnography.

The Ten Pillars of Japanese Service


So much of the marketplace experience comes down to the retail experience. And so much of the retail experience comes down to service. I had long heard about the service standards in Japan, which had even been summarized by the saying that “The Customer is God.” My expectations were high.

And they were not disappointed. I’m a fairly demanding customer (and if you haven’t read my blog entries about my disappointment with Costco online, you can catch it here), and I have to say that the service standards in Japan were incredibly high.

For example, I was very impressed by the guy who sold me my shoes at Seibu, one of Tokyo’s major high-end department stores. He knew everything about the shoes I was interested in (yes, he even expressed a type of an otakki wisdom). He told me their original price, when the store first received them. He even knew the name of the Italian designer of my new shoes. He gave me advice on the fit of the shoes, and also told me how to take care of them properly (and no, he wasn’t selling me any add-ons like a leather conditioner or anything, just telling me about the straps and that they were quite delicate). When I bought the shoes, he thanked me with a very low bow. I had this feeling of incredible knowledge, courtesy, and gratitude. And guess which store I can’t wait to visit when I return?

It certainly wasn’t just Seibu, although that sale impressed me enough to really stick in my memory. Almost everywhere I went the service was outstanding. In the USA, you find a good level of service overall, and exceptional service at a few places, such as Nordstrom or at fine hotels. But across Tokyo’s retailworld, I found wonderful attention to detail. Even the person who cleans tables, who makes food and cuts mushroom, seems to take special care.

Everything seemed to be a conscious, deliberate performance, calculated to delight the customer. Everything marketplace-related seemed to be an expression of self. There was this deep pride, this mindfulness, this sense of giving through momentary quality transactions as a social contributions, an expression of the communal that unites people, a sense of wanting to give rather than simply take.

More examples. The sushi maker was far more than just a guy whose served at a fast food counter. His hand moving rapidly, each piece of sushi seemed almost like an act of prestidigitation, each act of protein-starch mingling a creative wonder, a small miracle, a performance meriting deep concentration, deserving and drawing the attention of a grateful audience.

In the paper stores, there was origami precision in the wrapping of items and beautiful gifts, and it was ubiquitous, detectable even in the folding of a sales receipt, in the two-handed returning of a credit card, in the final thank you and bow. There was a complete care taken in every aspect of the service experience.

I pondered this servicescape. Could other countries aspire to have service levels like Japan? What would it take?

I could detect that there is a larger cultural frame at work, an ideology driving this pride in each transaction, this joy that comes from doing our jobs well and relishing the contact they give us with each other. A shared way of seeing how every service experience partakes in the performative power written about by Pine and Gilmore in their excellent book The Experience Economy.

I’m far, far from expert in any of these matters. This is very initial thinking. Speculation and little more. But here is a short list summary of some of the cultural factors that I think contribute to the phenomenon of phenomenal Japanese customer service:

  • 1. A hierarchical society (origins in military society?)
  • 2. Strong ideologies of service (some born of faith/Buddhism?)
  • 3. Deep-rooted rituals and traditions of gift-giving (emphasis on material culture)
  • 4. Admiration for the West, particularly the USA, and a desire to excel, outreach, and out-accomplish
  • 5. Traditions of mindful labor (e.g., Zen mindfulness, Japanese gardening)
  • 6. Aesthetic sense (translates into planograms, store layouts, signage)
  • 7. Visual/artistic culture (colors, logos, packages, wrapping)
  • 8. Notions of kaizen or continuous improvement
  • 9. Theatricality (ability and willingness to entertain the experience economy)
  • 10. Critical mass (with so many people, organization and service becomes much more essential; consider Tokyo’s spotless, high-tech, highly efficient public transportation system)

It’s interesting to contemplate how much in this list draws from drama, the arts, and ritual/religion/the sacred. I considered that this reveals the richly ritualistic qualities of the sales transaction in all their hierarchical and yet beautiful glory, the omnipresent dance of giving and receiving, of doing-for-each-other and having-it-done-for-oneself that is the essence of our consumer society and civilization.

The service occasion becomes, in this way, cast in the moment as timeless, marked, made sacred and larger-than-the-self. An opportunity to think beyond ourselves, and beyond this moment.

And what does this, I think, is pride on both ends. Pride in being the customer and (the missing ingredient in much of the West) pride in being the server.

“I’m not bowing to anyone,” is probably the likely, angry, grudging response of the typical Western service provider asked to do better, or compared to the Japanese.

Yet it is exactly this sort of refusal to do for others that holds us back, that keeps us from seeing the bigger social picture, from being able to act collectively for our future and for the greater good. And I don’t think it is just humility that is missing. Or even, so much, a “collective” orientation. It is, instead, this mindfulness linked to and applied to our work ethic—where work ethic has almost become an oxymoron. It is this devotion to skill and constant improvement that gets built into this other Japanese term “kaizen.” And pride in a job well done. For me, those are qualities of quality that I try to manifest in my own work, my teaching of students and managers, my research writing, my peer reviews. They are qualities I found all around me while shopping in Tokyo.

In the 1980s, the American business press idolized and frequently wrote about the wonders of the Japanese economy. There is still much that we can learn and apply.

Rethinking Otaku-hood, Part 2


So following up on yesterday’s discussion of the otaku, and a rethinking of what it means to be otaku, let’s first consider what else, besides entertainment industry products, can one be deeply devoted to, as an otaku?

Why, technology of course.

  • pasokon otaku: a person deeply devoted to personal computers
  • g_mu otaku: a devoted fan of the video game world

Then there are

  • Wota: (pronounced ‘ota’, an abbreviation of otaku): devoted fans of pop media “idols”

Wota are media figure otaku, so called hardcore or “extreme fans” (there are those stigmatizing connotations again) of “idols,” who are heavily promoted singing girls.

Now we get to some marginal, obscure hobbies.

  • tetsud_ otaku (metrophiles/ fans of subways/undergrounds)
  • gunji otaku (military geeks).

The term otaku has been applied to music, martial arts, cooking, coin collecting, automobiles, and so on (Source: That raises the question, I suppose, of what it doesn’t apply to? Let’s ponder that in a different way.

I was especially glad to find the adjective term “otakki” to describe something that is okatu-like (note: Otaki is city in New Zealand; I’m talking about otakki here). I find otakki is a preferable adjective than the terms derived from the word fan, like fannish, or fanlike (or I’ve even seen “fanny). It just rolls off the tongue better. It sounds a little like “tacky” and not so much like “crazy.”

So consider now the expository remarks Gibson made in an April 2001 edition of The Observer, where he said:

“The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age’s embodiment of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today’s interface of British and Japanese cultures. . . Understanding otaku -hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the web. There is something profoundly post-national about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the post-modern world, whether we want to be or not.“–William Gibson, 2001

There is no question that the term otaku has just as many unfortunate obsessive and negative connotations in Japanese as it does in American-English. It was associated first with a sort of nerdy culture (the term originally came from a form of verbal address that fans adopted, almost like the “live long and prosper” hand-sign of Star Trek fans). Then it became associated with a Japanese serial killer who had a thing for pornographic manga and anime, popularly known as hentai.

Although he starts out talking about otaku from a technically-accurate and stigmatizing distance, I think it is very noteworthy that William Gibson ends up talking about them as us, about all of us having these otaku drives. It’s not just the avid anime collectors and the Star Trek geeks. Citizens of information and consumption world, we are in our daily lives collectors, archivists, cleaning our desktops, marking our favorite pages, filing our favorite pictures. Many of us are otaku, or at least, at times, otakki.

We have these needs to latch on emotionally, to categorize, evaluate, collect, archive, and share. Of course, otaku are also active creators-both of symbolic meaning itself as well as of new things of substance like written fiction, serializations, movies, and so on.

In fact, I think this is directly on target. There is a very otaku-like (“otakki”) nature to contemporary existence, enabled by widespread digital information and communications technology, is what is creating radical shifts in consumption, and causing the shocks to the industrial system of intellectual “property” “rights.” It’s behind a lot of the fan conflicts I’ve written about (many others have too). For instance, consider the recent Rowling versus RDR Harry Potter case I wrote about in a past posting. This legal case is all about classic otaku behavior. And the jury is still, literally, out on this one.

I’d like to propose here and now a redefinition of the otakki.
I’d love to move otaku, otakki, and fan based definitions away from some of the nerdy, geeky, stalker-obsessive, creepy serial killer stereotypes that hinder our understanding of subcultures. I’d like to suggest that we have much to gain in terms of general understanding in recognizes the universality of the otakki way in our contemporary consumer culture. I’d also like to suggest that we continue to broaden and think about a science of the otaku, a science of the fan, that recognizes the universality and also the variety of manifestations of the forms of personal and cultural engagement that we have with commercial culture.

Here is the definition—academic style.

Otakki is herein defined as a way of being in contemporary human society characterized by a deep emotional and intellectual engagement with the products of commercial culture. The mode commonly manifests in intelligent interaction with consumption object “texts” of varying sorts, with the collection of various objects or forms of information, with critique and sensemaking efforts, and its commitments can also extend to include many types of creativity and communal interaction. The “texts” tend to be linked together into systems or related webs of consumption—such as “coffee consumption,” “connoisseur lifestyle,” or “media fan” and have complex linkages to other lifestyles, consumption activities, and ideologies.

This otakki engagement with commercial culture manifests in multifarious ways. It can range from sporadic activity to nearly constant questing and discourse. It can span products that are allegedly functional to those which are entirely ritual or symbolic. It can engage culture that is exclusively local or it can expand to encompass global culture.

The key to otakki culture is in its emotional engagement and the connoisseur discernment in interaction with the productions of contemporary corporations and their market offerings as against traditional religious or cultural offerings, although in contemporary capitalist economies these boundaries between art and culture, business and culture, and politics and business, often break down.

idoru book [Okay, I can't resist ending on an otakki note about William Gibson’s novel, Idoru. Idoru is a great novel that is far less known, appreciated and cited than Gibson's blockbuster Neuromancer; Idoru offers some profound insights on media and fandom and the way they are linked into consumer and information culture (which are themselves, in Idoru's perspicacious vision of our near-future, interlinked). One of the things I love about the trajectory of Gibson's work is the way his vision of the future has moved gradually from the cyber-punk near future to increasingly recent settings with their attendant social satirizing views. His latest book, 2007's intriguing Spook Country, was actually set in the timeless time of 1999, our future-as-already-past. I've already written about the consumption research revelations of Philip K. Dick's work. In the future, I'm hoping to expand this into some conjecture about the consumption worlds and insights revealed by other speculative fiction and science fiction authors such as William Gibson, Olaf Stapledon, Osamu Tezuka, Frederick Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, Vernor Vinge, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling's works.]

Rethinking Otaku-hood, Part 1

I had the glorious opportunity to spend most of last Saturday hanging around Tokyo’s Shibuya districts.

I spent the morning in Ginza. Here’s a picture I like a lot of me with one of my wonderful hosts, Professor Junko Kimura of Tokyo’s Hosei University. We are at the Nissan Showroom in Ginza, standing next to one of the most coveted objects in the automotive fan world, the new Nissan GT-R, a very exclusive performance car that has been until very recently cloaked in mystery.

Nissan GT-R, Kozinets & Kimura

Although Shibuya is known more for its centrality as a location for youth culture and fashion, and Akihabara is often cited as a center of otaku-culture, I found that there was plenty in Shibuya to send my mind reeling about the wonders of Okatu-hood.

‘What is an otaku?,’ you may be wondering. Well, the original meaning of otaku is that it is the Japanese word for a fan, and the term has gathered many of the same unfortunate and denigrating connotations as fan has in the English language.

According to Wikipedia, a highly fannish undertaking of its own, which, in matters such as these (which involve fans of many stripes and non-fans talking about things fannish), and many others, is wrong more often than it is right, the term’s popularity in English is owed to its frequent mention and use in William Gibson’s 1996 Idoru.

In one part of Gibson’s Idoru, the term was defined in the stereotypical and stereotyping way: as a ‘pathological techno-fetishist with-social-deficit.’ The Wikipedia entry, of course, misses the context, irony, and satire in the remark, and seems to offer it up as an actual serious definition. Sort of like going to the dictionary and finding the word fandom described as “just a bunch of geeky, nerdy, obsessive losers.”

According to the Wikipedia entry, “In modern Japanese slang, the term otaku refers to a fan of a particular theme, topic, or hobby.” That’s a pretty all-encompassing definition. Let’s explore it.
Here are the two most common uses:

  • anime otaku: a devoted fan of anime
  • manga otaku: a devoted fan of Japanese comic books or manga-these are targeted at adults, and some are literature of a very high order, like the masterful work of Osamu Tezuka, the graduated M.D. who never practiced medicine, widely hailed as the creator of manga and anime.

Those are probably the two core, original uses of the term otaku. And there is no downplaying their central importance to the term. Just as the term fan has begun spreading in our cultural vocabulary from the world of entertainment—TV show fan, movie fan, music fan, celebrity fan, videogame fan, and so on—to the world of general consumption, so too has the term otaku been anchored in its entertainment industry origins.

And apparently the officials at the Japanese cultural ministry still not quite woken up to the significance of manga and anime. A major, recent two-page story in the English language “Japan Times” began by stating:

“It’s a fact that has long puzzled devotees and plain old tourists alike. Japan’s manga and anime arts have been wowing the world for more than a decade, and yet the national government still hasn’t got around to setting up a proper museum for their enjoyment, preservation and study. After so many years of inaction, though, it is surprising to note that two days ago on Friday, a minor breakthrough occurred. The head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tamotsu Aoki, announced that the advisory panel he had tasked with finding ways to improve Japan’s “dissemination of culture abroad” had come out and stated the obvious. In an interim report, Aoki’s panel made six recommendations “requiring prompt attention.” Number two on the list was that the establishment of a ‘facility for the collection, preservation and provision of information regarding the media-arts (manga, anime and video games) be considered.’”

Some much-needed appreciation, as the objects of otaku desire move into the mainstream, the trajectory I have noted above, and which was in many ways the basis of the insight behind the pop art movement of the mid-1950. And certainly Takashi Murakami’s work in Japan is an interesting combination of both otaku culture and pop art.

Tomorrow, let’s take this deeper by digging into the ways that otaku-hood expresses something integral to consumer culture today.

The Mystery of Nissan’s Jiggly Juggy Viral Ad

I recently had the opportunity to teach a full-day workshop devoted to online communities and netnography for Nissan at their corporate retreat in Hakone, about two hours outside of Tokyo, nestled in the hot spring foothills of Mt. Fuji. It was a great session, and the feedback and comments were incredible. I’m very grateful to Hiroko Osaka, who planned the event, and to Nissan, which made it happen.

One component of the workshop involved getting Nissan’s best and brightest marketing managers involved hands-on in using cutting-edge netnographic techniques to understand how their customers made sense of their brand and the entire category online.

As we were going through different examples of online postings and communications about Nissan, a mystery emerged.

As I had been searching for popular online Nissan ads, that is, ads that were frequently shared and also commented upon by communities of consumers online, I had come across this ad. The ad was popular, it had been Digg’d previously and extensively, had lots of interesting comments on YouTube, and was around since 2006. Given that I was presenting to a mixed-gender group, and unsure whether showing this ad would make some people uncomfortable, I opted not to put it in my presentation. But here it was. It’s definitely jiggly. And in content, no doubt it’s all juggy. It spread around so it’s very viral. The Jiggly Juggy Viral Ad.

Here it is:

A group of managers, both males and females, were standing around watching this ad on their computer as one part of the netnographic overview of online communications and meanings they were examining for the program. I stopped them and asked “Why did you make such a risqué ad? What was the idea behind this.”

The manager from the USA looked at me and said, “As far as I know, we didn’t make this. I’ve checked into it before. No one here at Nissan knows where this ad comes from. It just appeared online. And that’s not even our font they are using. It’s totally not authorized and not created by us.”

Now, that’s an interesting little puzzle. I wonder if anyone out there had the answer.

Where did this Nissan ad come from?

As far as I can tell, there are only a few options if Nissan didn’t create this ad.

  1. It is user-generated content. Usually for something like this, that would be the most likely candidate. But the jiggling is pretty precise, and the production values are quite high. To me, this doesn’t look like a homemade video, neither in conception nor in execution.
  2. It is a fake ad planted by competitors. Sort of a little reverse viral undermining strategy. But it’s really not that offensive. It’s kind of cute, in an old Playboy mag, soft-core kind of way. If someone really wanted to undermine, I’d expect that they would go more for something more offensive or damaging to the brand.
  3. It was a spoof created by an advertising firm to try out an idea, then leaked. My money is on this theory. The conception, the production values, they all smack of an ad agency. But why did they use a real brand, the Nissan Pathfinder brand to showcase? And why would they choose to share it online? Was it created for internal use, and then liked by someone so much that it was leaked? If so, it was a very successful leak. The ad is one of the top Nissan ad’s online.

One of the reasons I favor theory #3 is the existence of the old fake terrorist ad for VW that was rolling around the Internet some time back and had everyone fooled for a while. In terms of feeling like it was conceived by advertising people, and the production values it clearly embodies, it reminds me of this Nissan ad (actually, they use the VW font so it’s even closer).

The VW ad is still very much around, and still apparently arousing controversy. Here’s a link to that ad.

According to a story in the Guardian, and many, many blog postings on the topic, it’s a spoof ad that was created by two advertising people as a gimmick. Some stories say that the ad was pitched to Volkswagen, who rejected it as offensive. Other stories say that the team (“Lee and Dan”) leaked it on purpose to create controversy and further a political agenda. They do say that it “got out accidentally.”

Well, I’m not sure how that happens. I have lots of video, and none of it so far has escaped my hard-drive without my say-so.

Finally, there are those who say that this was all a very clever and rather devious campaign by VW to stir up all kinds of weird word of mouth, while staying officially above the fray. They covertly commission a few clever producers to make this video and then leak it. Then they go into the press, distance themselves from it, while acknowledging it over and over again, officially and express extreme disgust, even threatening to sue them for damaging the brand. But all the while its being viewed, over and over again. (Just like it is off this blog….)

For those conspiracy theorists, I’d like to recommend the book Jennifer Government by Max Barry . In that book, the Nike of the future covertly commissions killers to murder people for their new Nike shoes, secretly creating a sensation that boosts demand for them. It’s a fun ride of a science fictionalized marketing-satirizing book and I recommend it.

I keep coming back to the production values. I wonder exactly how this was done, the physics and biomechanics of the operation. Was it CG special effects on the order of WALL-E or Final Fantasy IV? A person mounted on some sort of platform? A gifted and talented “breast actress” who needs no mechanical assistance whatsoever?

Any insights, speculations, inside dope, personal demonstrations, or even sheer guesses into any of these abundant mysteries would be most welcome.

Instant Online Brand Research

Here’s something kind of cool. A short post about a nice little web-site that was programmed by one person, but which leverages the power of the connected web (Web 2.0) pretty nicely. A few people have sent me the link already to Brand Tags.

Here’s the story on it from the Wall Street Journal’s blog. As the story says, a blogger strategist at Naked Communication, Noah Brier, created this web-site, Brand Tags, as an exercise in programming. The site that has a simple premise. It shows visitors brand logos and then asks them to type in the first word or phrase that popped into their head upon seeing the logo. The results are presented graphically, as a tag cloud where the most common answers are shown biggest.

The results are interesting, not only for the meanings they reveal, but for the diversity they show. Although the Wall Street Journal entry journalistically emphasizes the negative side, mentioning the association of “fat” with Burger King, “boring with Toyota, and “evil” with Wal-Mart.

But I checked out Coca-Cola. Whoah. Coca-Cola covers the alphabetical spectrum, from acid, Atlanta, American, brown, bubbles, classic, capitalist, crap, to evil, global, good, high fructose, monopoly, original, Pepsi, red, refreshing, Santa, soda, tasty, unhealthy, worldwide, yummy, yuck, and zero. What a vast, contradictory array of findings. What an amazing sample. I suspect that the same person might have different responses to the logo at different times, across different experiences. As I’ve written about with Stephen Brown and John Sherry, brands have this amazing inner contradiction, this “schismatic core” (to borrow Alex Shakar’s phrase), this polarity that powers them and keeps them vital.

Take a look at brand tags and relish its amazing diversity.

As consumer researchers, how might we use this tool? How might we build similar tools? What suggestions would you have for how the site might be extended or improved?