It was the decision to run an ad at an estimated $4 million for 30 seconds of air time during the broadcast of the Super Bowl that won headlines for the H.J. Heinz Co., but it may be the scads of personal photos entered in the contest connected to that commercial that win the game for the Pittsburgh ketchup maker.
In the age of the selfie, a consumer base armed with smartphones has proven enamored of taking pictures and uploading them to the Internet. More than 50 percent of online users have posted original photos or videos to websites and 47 percent have shared the ones they found, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.
If brands can harness that habit to generate and distribute fresh images of, say, ketchup bottles (Heinz) or golf shoes (Golf Galaxy) or young women (aerie), that's an effective way to become part of the real streams of information that people share with friends and family all day long.
And it won't even look like an ad.
"It's immensely shareable," said David Heidenreich, vice president of engagement at Smith Brothers Agency on the North Shore. "That's an endorsement on behalf of the brand."
Heinz had success with this sort of thing in 2007, when it received about 4,000 qualified entries into a video contest orchestrated by Smith Brothers. In that case, the contestants had to make 30-second spots, rather like the Doritos "Crash the Super Bowl" contest that has put fan-submitted commercials on TV during the big game for the past several years.
But the new Heinz contest doesn't require as much of its participants, and that may be on trend, too.
"The barrier to entry is negligible with a photo," said Mr. Heidenreich. "Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone can take a photo and upload it."
Besides, photos seem to drive engagement better than links or videos, according to data presented by Tania Yuki, CEO of Shareablee, in a webinar last month for Reston, Va., digital tracking firm ComScore.
Mr. Heidenreich agreed that a photo -- a simple, interesting image -- has advantages over even the funny videos that people love to share with friends.
Consumers may spend an hour and a half to two hours a day on their phones, but they often do that in 30- to 60-second increments.
Someone waiting for a bus, sitting at a red light or glancing at a smartphone while waiting for a meeting to start doesn't have time -- or maybe want to put in earbuds -- to watch a two-minute video. But a good image is absorbed quickly -- and also is easy to send along to someone else.
"Snackable content is a word for it," said Mr. Heidenreich.
Getting consumers to help with the effort to create content tends to require a few incentives. Golf Galaxy, which is owned by Findlay retailer Dick's Sporting Goods, is offering a new $189 pair of Footjoy DNA golf shoes to winners of a contest in which people post images of their "old or current golf shoes" on Twitter.
Aerie, which is part of South Side teen clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters, is asking for photos of the "real you" to be posted on Twitter or Instagram with the proper tag, as part of the intimate clothing chain's marketing campaign featuring untouched images of young women of various shapes and sizes.
A Toaster Strudel campaign that ends this week is trying to reach mothers and millennials by asking people to share a "Morning Movers" wish on the brand's Facebook page. Based on those wishes, the marketers have done things like send a limo to pick up a 14-year-old Oregon girl for school and fly grandparents from Texas to the Butler County community of Sarver to surprise their grandchildren on Christmas morning.
For its part, Heinz is enticing people to cook up ketchup photos by offering a chance to win tickets to sporting events, as well as Weber grills and $50 gift cards. The company said on its Facebook page last week that it had received thousands of photos, although one fan seemed a little frustrated, posting, "I've entered like six times. I haven't seen any new pictures."
The photos displayed on the company's ShowUsYourHeinz.com website don't, for the most part, seem as offbeat and fun as some of the commercials that were created in that video contest a few years ago. (There was a cute photo of a baby holding a ketchup bottle almost as big as he was).
The contest will continue beyond the Super Bowl on Sunday, when the new Heinz commercial created by the company's agency of record, Chicago-based Cramer-Krasselt is set to broadcast.