Micro-commercial appeal

CRITICAL EYE

Grass-roots groups get the word out by posting short, quirky ads on the Web

Critical Eye

December 16, 2007|By SAM SESSA

In the commercial, local musician Jenn Wasner stands in front of a superimposed photo backdrop of a bonfire, stares straight into the camera and says:

"I'm going because I believe in the power of the written word ... on fire."

Got your attention yet?

Conceptualized and written by local musician Jason Dove, the roughly minute-long film featured a cast of Baltimore bands tearing pages out of books and lighting them on fire. It was shot strictly for Internet viewers - uploaded onto YouTube and posted on a few local bands' Web sites. Made on a shoestring budget in a couple of hours, it was the only official advertisement for a quirky benefit concert - a book-burning for peace with live performances by Baltimore bands.

And, it was a hit.

In the weeks before the event, the video was viewed more than 1,500 times. More than 200 people came to the show - some just because they saw the jarring, hilariously over-the-top commercial.

"The commercial was totally worth it," Dove said. "I was amazed."

The marriage of affordable digital filming and editing technology and video-hosting Web sites such as YouTube has given rise to a new form of grass-roots advertising: the micro-commercial, or "micromercial." A few local bands have started recording short, quirky micromercials to promote large events or tours.

Unlike traditional TV or Internet commercials which are built into other programming, micromercials are optional viewing. As a result, they must be tailored to the on-demand generation: an audience with short attention spans and seemingly limitless numbers of advertisers vying for them.

"It's not on TV," said videographer Chris Harring, who shot Dove's micromercial. "It's not the only thing on the screen that could be getting someone's attention."

Pacing is everything with micromercials. Even if the video is only a minute long, it cannot drag at any point, or viewers will lose interest. For a micromercial to be effective, it must pique their curiosity from the start and hold it undivided until the finish.

"The trick is to make it the right length and integrate the right sense of humor," Harring said.

The right sense of humor for Internet viewers is more eccentric and less straightforward - more Conan O'Brien than Jay Leno. The information micromercials offer can be incidental to the way it's presented. Viewers just want to be entertained.

Video artist Jimmy Joe Roche, a member of the local Wham City arts collective, made a roughly 30-second micromercial for his recent tour with fellow Wham City members OCDJ and Rubbed Raw. The video is saturated with explosions of color and surrealistic images while a narrator spouts off tour dates.

"I use a lot of color in those pieces," Roche said. "I put a lot in a little bit of space. I like to pack it in, in almost a ridiculous level."

Roche's commercial, which racked up more than 3,500 views on YouTube, proves that discontinuity can sometimes work best. Dozens of shots - from close-ups of someone eating chicken to a cartoon sandwich holding a toothbrush - flash across the screen in strobe light fashion. You could watch the video several times and still not see everything. That's exactly what Roche wants.

"I think it's cool when you're making a 30-second video to throw in a couple little things that are unresolved," Roche said. "It catches people - makes them want to see it again."

It can be counterintuitive to make a micromercial and send it off blindly into the ether of the Internet. Thousands of videos get buried in the swamp of YouTube, rarely seen by anyone. As such, micromercials make more sense for a band that already has a small but dedicated audience.

"I think it's brilliant - especially for someone who already has some Internet recognition," Harring said. "Everyone I know has a day job and spends half their life on the Internet. It makes great sense.

Though micromercials will probably never reach the same audience as mainstream television commercials, they can appeal directly to a niche group of viewers. The popular indie music Web site pitch forkmedia.com, sensing a future in innovative online commercials, hired Roche to produce three micromercials for its online TV channel.

"It's a great way for little guys to stand toe to toe with dudes dropping $500,000 on a Lexus commerical," Roche said. "That's awesome."

Most important, you can make a micromercial with little time and effort. That alone means they're here to stay.

"It's cheap," Roche said. "It's free. Anything that's cheap and free in America has a future."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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