Microsoft launched two new contests today at its UltimateSteal site (the ultimate steal is getting Office for $60 as a student).

The UltimateSteal Sweepstakes, both The Ultimate College Idol and the Ultimate College All Nighter, are (ultimately) all about people singing or talking behind avatars they design using the Voki avatar generation experience.

I was getting ready to write about how stupid these contests are, how Microsoft is just another huge company that "doesn't get it," and how avatars are a complicated matter that adults struggle to engage with authentically. Then I spent some time on the site and found that some of this stuff is really, really funny. It's a fun site to spend time on and though the official framing of the contests is pretty pathetic - the campaign just might succeed in spite of itself. It's worth checking out as a case-study in user generated content driven marketing with avatars - an increasingly common activity.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. Gaming journalist James Au told me he thought it "looks like something John Hodgeman's character in the Apple commercials would come up with." Maybe I'm more like John Hodgeman's character myself than I'd like to admit, then because I think some of the videos here are fun.

I've got a bunch of personal favorites already but for illustration I'll embed below one of the official welcome videos (stupid!) and one of my favorite stories of an "all nighter."