Super Bowl Ad Contest -- Have You Played?

Like all the previous Super Bowls, next week's showdown in Miami will feature padded, tough linemen, a halftime extravaganza and millions of television viewers cheering for the teams lucky or smart enough to make it to the NFL's biggest day.

But there is one big change this year -- a change as revolutionary as one of the coaches showing up on the sidelines in full, superfan body paint.

This year people just like you will be taking control of the ads.

That's right, average Joes and Janes are dreaming up the concepts and even shooting and editing the $2.5 million, 30-second spots that make the Super Bowl the biggest television ad event of the year. And they'll be doing it for big brands that everyone knows -- companies like Doritos, GM and even the NFL itself.

All three companies ran contests inviting regular viewers to film their own Super Bowl commercials. For the contestants, it's a chance to show their stuff on the most watched TV event of the year.

Meanwhile, the corporate giants are banking that the YouTube revolution that led "You" to be named Time's Person of the Year will translate into success on the ad industry's biggest stage.

Meet the Maker

Jared Cicon is a self-described chubby white guy who has made his living for the last 18 years as a wedding photographer in Claremont, Calif.

After picking up a high-end video camera for a steal -- some Hollywood type had hocked the rig at a pawn shop -- Cicon was tooling around, looking for a way to learn how to shoot and edit video.

"It was a really intensive learning curve," said Cicon. "The manuals, if you lay them on top of each other, they're about a foot high. I read as much as I could, but my mind was just spinning. So I said, you know what, I'll be reactive. When I'm out there shooting and come across a problem, I'll try to find an answer."

It wasn't long before Cicon was loading up the minivan and heading out with his four kids for a vacation in Death Valley. He took the camera, but he wasn't shooting for your run-of-the-mill home movie.

He grabbed a Lay's Potato Chips bag up from the floorboard and shot what he calls a "spec" commercial, starring his kids as they toured one of the hottest places on the planet.

"I tried to get [Lays] to listen to it, or see it, so I called New York and Dallas," said Cicon. "I even sent them multiple copies, but they wouldn't even look at it because they had a big-name ad firm working for them."

Just before the amateur ad-man gave up, a Frito Lay employee called him and told him not to lose hope.

"She goes, 'you know, Jared, there's a contest from our sister company Doritos that's going to be coming out in a week, and I think this is right up your alley.' Sure enough, a week later Doritos announced its Super Bowl ad contest and I got right to work."

Cicon churned out nine ads for Doritos 'Crash the Super Bowl' ad contest in the next few months.

He learned how to use his camera -- "I'm pretty much a pro now," he said -- and landed himself in the contest's Top five.

As a reward for making the final, he's already won $10,000 and a trip to Miami for the big game. He won't find out if his 30-second spot, called "Chip Lover's Dream," is the winner until it's seen by 90 million people on Super Bowl Sunday's live telecast.

If he does win, Cicon's pawn-shop camera and creative drive might just land him a new career in the ad business -- a YouTube career turn that just a few years ago was unthinkable.

What Are They Thinking?

When it comes to television advertising, there is no bigger stage than the Super Bowl.

Huge national brands make big-budget spots, hoping to capture not just the 90 million pairs of eyeballs watching the game but also a piece of the national postgame water cooler conversation -- which ads were the funniest, or most creative (or most offensive or stupid)?

In the past, that equation has meant giving a top ad agency about $1 million dollars to dream up the minimovie that will move a product. After the pros think up the concept, they'll spend upwards of $500,000 to produce 30 seconds of Super Bowl-worthy film.

And then they'll be spend around $2.5 million to buy time from the television network that's airing the game, for a grand total of $4 million.

If it all comes together -- and if the people watching think it's good -- all that time and money can translate into business-building buzz. Who had heard of before they stamped their logo on a bosom-baring Super Bowl ad in 2005?

But this year is less about wardrobe malfunctions and more about the compay's gamble to forgo the expensive ad agencies for the common man.

Doritos, the nation's biggest brand for flavored corn chips, decided to use the user-generated trend to their advantage, launching a contest where amateur ad men and women could do it all: Come up with the concept for a Super Bowl spot, and even shoot and edit the ad.

The winner would see their ad -- every frame of it -- right there in the Super Bowl telecast, as would half the country. It's a risky proposition by any measure, because Doritos didn't know what kind of response the contest would get.

The company got more than 1,100 ads from people all across the country. That's more than 500 minutes of Super Bowl chip pitches for next to nothing in cost to the company. And, of course, while some are good -- the five finalists all have a professional look and relatively good comic timing -- some are, well, less than good.

The contest has some outside help as well -- it's catching a lot of online buzz in the blogosphere, not to mention feature stories in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

And Doritos is not the only brand hoping to hitch its commercial wagon to the brains of creative consumers.

General Motors held a contest asking college students from around the country to come up with ideas for its Chevy brands. One team of students got the green light for its concept and shot an ad that will air during the game.

Even the NFL itself is trying its hand at consumer-generated buzz. After the game, the league generally takes a moment -- and a $2.5 million spot -- to thank its fans for their loyalty during the season. This year, a rabid fan, Gino Bona of Portsmouth, N.H., pitched an ad focused on fans that will wrap up the season with the tag line: "It's hard for us, too."

His commercial -- one of 1,700 ideas that real fans brought to "American Idol"-style tryouts around the country -- is being shot by Joe Pytka, one of the ad world's most prolific and respected directors.

Exciting, But Not So New

These companies are jumping on a branding bandwagon that got started years ago.

Left-wing political group ran a user-made ad contest back in 2004 called "Bush in 30 Seconds." The group was looking for a grassroots ad they could run during the Super Bowl that would skewer President Bush, who at the time was running for re-election.

The MoveOn contest garnered about 1,500 submissions and picked a winner that depicted children doing menial jobs with a graphic tag line that read: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"

But the ad didn't get its Super Bowl airing. CBS rejected the spot, saying it didn't meet the network's standards. The ad ran on cable news networks around the time of the President's State of the Union address instead.

And cable network featherweight CurrentTV, which is seen in about 30 million homes around the country, has a similar commitment to user-created ads.

Starting in the spring of last year the channel launched its VCAM (Viewer Created Ad Message) program, inviting budding ad pros to shoot ads for big brands that would air on the network -- with the reward of $1,000 for each ad that airs.

The channel has already aired ads for Toyota, Pop Secret Popcorn, Sony and Mountain Dew.

So Does It Work?

Letting the patients run the asylum is certainly a hot trend, but the real test will be finding out whether it works. The average Joe concept is a fun hook, but will these ads sell people on the products they are pitching?

"I think the jury's out as to how much a staple this is going to end up being in on-air advertising," said Linda Kaplan-Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of ad firm Kaplan Thaler. "I say that only because, looking at these consumer-generated ads, they're not knocking my socks off."

Kaplan-Thaler said that, despite the fact that there's a significant cost savings with user-generated ads -- $150 for the average viewer-created ad as compared to the million-dollar budgets for agency-generated Super Bowl spots -- it's just not worth it for most advertisers.

"I don't think they're as entertaining as a lot of the ads that I saw last year which were created by good old ad agencies with people who are well steeped in the clients' needs and who spend their days and nights doing this," said Kaplan-Thaler.

No matter what the professionals think, Joes and Janes are certainly going to get their chance at Super Bowl fame this year. Even if the ads are bad, they'll be talked about, which is exactly why companies shell out the big bucks for a few ticks of the clock on Feb. 4.

For the contestants, a good rule of thumb is to keep in mind that you're only as good as you think you are.

"I don't think I'm better than the Madison Avenue ad guys, but I think I give them a run for their money," said Jared Cicon.

Come Super Bowl Sunday, about 90 million people will be able to see just how good Jared and his amateur ad peers are.