Virtual Activists to Rise Up with Cause-Branded Gear

Bumper stickers and t-shirts have long been means of personal expression, and now avatar provider Meez is hoping people will want their virtual doppelgangers to don slogan- and brand-studded duds, too. The company today is unveiling avatar clothing and accessories promoting seven non-profit groups and the issues associated with them.

“It’s like merchandising really,” suggested Ginger Thomson, CEO of YouthNoise, an organization and social networking community that partners with 450 non-profits representing a variety of issues. “As we establish the YouthNoise brand… this will be one more way for somebody to recognize YouthNoise,” she predicted.

Meez’s new virtual “Cauz” line will also feature offerings from community service group Do Something, writing tutoring organization 826 Valencia, media education group Just Think, progressive political music organization Music for America, summer education group Summer Search and Outward Bound, an outdoors education organization.

Unlike other avatar offerings, Meez characters can be displayed across the Web, wherever simple images can be uploaded. Users can create the three dimensional representations at no cost, choosing the avatars’ facial features, hairstyles and skin tones, and posting them to Web sites, such as their blogs or MySpace profile pages.

“What I like about it is it’s participatory,” said Thomson. “[Young people] are often playing with different personas online….This is another way they’re an active participant in creating a persona.”

Paid add-ons can get elaborate — from tattoos and piercings to animated enhancements allowing characters to strum a guitar, come out of a closet, or land a skate trick. Outfitting an avatar with a Major League Baseball-branded jersey, for instance, costs $2.50; the league splits the revenue with Meez. Once they’re purchased, users have perpetual access to their avatar accoutrements.

Meez created an animation enabling pixilated protesters to hold up a megaphone as part of the Cauz collection. The non-profit-related additions will come free of charge, and will be offered through pages branded by Meez and each non-profit. YouthNoise will promote the Meez offering on its registration page, and allow its members to get T-shirts, “hoodies” and background images expressing their interest in particular issues like poverty or animal rights. This way, commented Thomson, the group’s teen members can “brand themselves using YouthNoise sensibility.”

Meez also is offering a portion of revenue from other non-Cauz virtual gear purchased by users coming from its non-profit partners’ sites.

Avatars have long been associated with online role playing games or geeky Web communities. In its take-it-with-you approach, Meez aims to appeal to mainstream Web users. “We emphasize portability,” explained Meez Director of Marketing Michael Lehman. “People can build these avatars and take them wherever they want.” More than 100,000 Meez avatars have been created, according to Lehman. At this point, the avatars cannot interact with one another.

In addition to MLB, the company has formed relationships with the National Hockey League and the U.S. Soccer Federation to offer users branded sports items. “We’re in discussion to expand out to things like fashion brands,” added Lehman. Expect political and music-related products to be made available in the future, too. According to Lehman, popular Meez member demand prompted the company to create avatar gear promoting a San Francisco indie band, Stroke 9.

This fall, Meez plans on launching a campaign in conjunction with a soft drink brand allowing consumers to submit a code printed on bottle caps to get a free avatar accessory.

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