Yahoo, Wal-Mart Build a Virtual Catwalk

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By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Do you want to be a model? Are you runway ready? Are you prepared to work it?

Okay, maybe not. But perhaps your avatar is, and this week, Yahoo and Wal-Mart launched an online casting call.

It's a marketing pitch, of course: The biggest Web site in the world wants more users to think about developing an online profile, complete with an avatar, a cartoonish replica of oneself. And the world's largest retailer wants a chance to hook in with the fashionable Internet set.

At stake: Five (real) $100 Wal-Mart gift cards for the winners, and a shot at fame -- for their avatars.

As the Internet comes of age, more companies are trying to make it possible for Web users to give their online presence a lifelike personality -- or at least a lifelike appearance. AOL, for example, gives its users the option of choosing 3-D avatars that laugh, shake their heads and respond to things written during an instant-message conversation.

Thousands of avatars inhabit parallel Web-based worlds such as Second Life and a site called There, where users design humanoid versions of themselves, clothe them, buy things, socialize with other avatars, and read newspapers about current events in those worlds.

Avatars have also given Web sites opportunities to market themselves and encourage user participation. Earlier this year, MTV's broadband video channel, Overdrive, sponsored an avatar fashion show on Second Life. On ESPN.com, a user can set up an avatar to give sports commentary -- the best of which gets featured on the home page as the "Voice of the Fan."

To compete in the Yahoo fashion show, an avatar must come decked out in Wal-Mart style. That is to say, the contestant must dress his or her avatar in clothes, swimwear, hats and shoes chosen from the online armoire provided by Yahoo and Wal-Mart.

There is, for example, the "orange and yellow Hawaiian swimsuit and sarong." A more modest avatar might chose the "long blue coat w/ fur collar." There is also the "brown business suit & newspaper," which hews more to the K Street commuter look.

"It's a great campaign to reach the youth audience online, and we have marketing partners who want to reach their target audience," said Yahoo spokeswoman Terrell Karlsten. "Teens are obsessed with self-expression and personalization," and perhaps the ones who haven't created an alter ego will be inspired to create their own avatars.

As of yesterday evening, the front-runner in the show was a Madonna look-alike sporting dark shades and wearing a cropped navy tank top and striped green pants, accessorized with multi-colored bracelets and a brown belt. She's accompanied by the avatar of her German shepherd. Like many other contestants, she has her hands on her narrow hips, which are swayed to one side.

Votes -- "cast as many votes as you like" -- will be tallied through Nov. 8. They can be cast at http://promotions.yahoo.com/avatar .


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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