Editorial: Entertaining new ad ideas

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The argument once was that advertising can entertain but it must also sell. Now it seems advertising is not just entertaining but melding into the entertainment landscape itself as marketers flock toward product placements and arty ad "films" and pay to have their brands written into the plots of TV shows. This is more than simply a new twist on the old "brought to you by" sponsorships that were common when TV and radio were in their infancy. It's a seismic shift that's here to stay. And it's largely a positive one, provided marketers remember one key tenet: A brand message must not overwhelm or dictate content.

The Madison & Vine phenomenon figured into no fewer than three Ad Age stories last week alone. Hal Riney, the man who helped redefine advertising with his signature style of TV commercial, declared the 30-second spot dead. The nation's No. 2 advertiser, Procter & Gamble Co., arranged for product placements as part of its $350 million cross-media pact with Viacom Plus. And TiVo, the ad-skipping service that has all of Madison Ave. nervously looking over its shoulder, is experimenting with extended-form ads and promotions, betting viewers will choose to view ad content if it's as compelling as the programming.

Getting people to watch ads is one thing. Making sure they still are distinguishable as ads is another. Viewers are savvy enough to know why "Survivor" contestants won Pontiac Azteks rather than Range Rovers. Writing Revlon into "All My Children" or Federal Express into "Cast Away" lends verisimilitude to the plot; but ploys, such as having Barbara Walters burble over Campbell Soup on "The View", can backfire on both the advertiser and the program pitching the product.

News shows, in particular, should not be a forum for product placement; doing so degrades the credibility of the program and will eventually turn off viewers, who will then turn off the channel. After all, that's entertainment.

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