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For one of its latest advertising campaigns, T-Mobile enlisted a creative team that it believed would best reach its young, peer-influenced customers — its users.
"With so many ways for companies to reach them, they're almost overloaded," said Melinda McCrocklin, T-Mobile's advertising manager. "We want to make sure our message breaks through."
So McCrocklin and her team in Bellevue, Washington, created a contest that invites customers to build 30-second spots using graphics, music, and footage of basketball stars Charles Barkley and Dwayne Wade that T-Mobile provided on its site. The lure? A promise to broadcast the winning short during the current N.B.A. playoffs.
"We look at this as getting another creative idea," McCrocklin said. "And if something's there, we'll explore."
While the holy grail of advertising has long been thought to be data targeting—finding the right ad for the right viewer—some brands are literally handing the reins to customers, letting viewers create their own ad messages, or even pick the spots they want to watch.
Not surprisingly, two emerging TV networks, one on cable and one on the Web, are pioneering this ad trend.
Current TV, Al Gore's youth-oriented cable network launched viewer-created advertising messages, or VCAMs, as soon as the channel went live in August 2005. They give viewers the opportunity to help create the ad message served to them.
Then NBC Universal and News Corp. joined forces to build Hulu.com, which streams top shows like Heroes and Medium, as well as more shelf-worn movies like Mulholland Drive, to viewers for free. It went live last month and soon plans to let viewers pick the ads they watch from a pool offered by a single brand: say, a car company or cosmetics giant.
Jean-Paul Colaco, senior vice president of advertising with Hulu.com, said that a major car company will be the first to test the waters. He declined to name the sponsor.
"Users will define the advertising experience they want," Colaco said. "If you increase the amount of choice, [brands] can get direct feedback on the ads and know within the first two days if it's successful."
Hulu declined to elaborate on what it charges its clients for this new service. But it seems safe to assume that advertisers are being asked to pay a premium for this kind of targeted result — particularly since it can take 12 to 16 weeks to create the user-driven contest and get it on the air.
Current TV marketing executive Joshua Katz said that clients who want to run a VCAM on his channel "have to bring a certain amount of money to us."
Since YouTube's skyrocketing success, it's easy to find young, Web-savvy users willing to make short clips they hope their peers will laud. The difference with VCAMs is that the shorts are ads that brands usually have to pay a lot to create.

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