Ad deals that blur content line are no substitute for creativity

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As a new tivo commercial featuring Earl, a man who always gets his own way ("I don't want a puppy; I want the tiger") brilliantly portrays, new technologies are overturning the communications model by empowering end users.

Some of the sharpest minds in advertising, marketing and media have wrestled for several years now with the challenges this presents, among them what form marketing messages will take when control is no longer in the hands of the information provider.

Of course, those same minds have been working on the challenge of Web advertising since 1995, but we have yet to move beyond the banner. Still, ladies and gentlemen, I'm proud to reveal that the commercial-television problem has been solved. As the 30-second spot is zapped into oblivion and technological advances allow for a truly interactive viewing experience, the "spot" as we know it will be replaced by (drum roll, please) . . . sitcom actors wearing t-shirts with logos.

Exciting, no?

Sadly, this seems to be the best solution our brightest minds have to offer. It's not surprising, actually, since advertising's creative community has completely ignored the technological revolution. What's worrisome is that creatives are actually proud of their disappointing failure to meet their most basic job description of applying ideas and innovation to the marketing process. The head of one of the best agencies in the business admitted in private conversation recently that his creatives care about their reels-and only their reels. Forget the Web. Forget wireless. Forget interactive technologies of any stripe. They want to make mini-films.

The lack of a creative spark is why the ideas we are getting amount to nothing more than t-shirts with logos on them. Consider ABC's "The View," a morning talk show produced by the network's entertainment division but starring journalists such as Barbara Walters. "The View" cut a deal with Campbell Soup Co. that gave the product a starring role. In one show, Walters talked about eating Campbell Soup as a child while her co-hosts hummed "M'm! M'm! Good!" ABC and Walters defended the marketing deal and said it didn't affect the show's quality. Exposing their hypocrisy, however, they then killed a planned segment where another host would roam the studio testing the audience's soup-sipping abilities.

These types of deals show a complete lack of imagination or forward thinking. In fact, they harken back to TV's earliest days. They also treat viewers as morons while betraying their trust. Amazingly, while the line between news and advertising is still considered sacrosanct (and should be), at some point it apparently became acceptable to blur the line in entertainment programming. Why is that exactly? Consumers may not expect journalistic standards to be applied to entertainment shows, but they do trust networks and producers to create products with the goal of entertaining audiences, not pitching them.

A brand boils down to a promise to the consumer to deliver a product or service at a consistent quality. If Campbell were to put inferior soup in a red-and-white can to bolster its bottom line, it would betray that promise. When "The View" put together an inferior entertainment product designed with a marketer rather than a viewer in mind, it did the same thing.

Product placement may seem like an effective marketing tool, but it's a poor substitute for an idea.

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