An Innovation That Isn't Makes for Messy Marketing

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Best-selling author Fay Weldon has written a novel under commission for Bulgari. Parents are up in arms over product placements in Internet games. The survival of the survivors on Survivor depends on the on-screen ingestion of Mountain Dew.

Yes, it's 1989 all over again! This large-scale reappearance of product placements across the media landscape says a great deal about the limitations of the phenomenon. At the same time, though, it's indicative of a time bomb ticking away in the heart of marketing.

First, some perspective. The insertion of commercial messages inside infotainment narratives is as old as marketing itself. As Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears shows in his 1994 book, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, modern marketing evolved out of the carnivalesque atmosphere of the traveling markets of ancient Europe. There the selling message and the emotional engagement were twined together in a form of public performance. Certainly this was true in 19th-century American medicine shows, from which the modern advertising industry derives directly.

In other words, historically, advertising was product placement.

Respecting the boundaries
With the rise of newspapers, magazines and broadcasting, the marketing message became separated from the information and entertainment content -- quite literally. We're educated almost from birth to recognize and respect these boundaries -- between the ads and commercials on one side, and the stories and shows on the other.

Of course, wily operators have crossed these borders for as long as they've existed. In the early days of mass media, the cleverest transgressors were the direct descendants of P.T. Barnum: the press agents who packaged stunts that could land their commercial clients in the newsreels. These days, we tend to call that "spin," and we accord those who have mastered it (in political and commercial marketing) an unusual degree of respect, considering how old the art form is.

Ms. Weldon's novel The Bulgari Connection, from Grove/Atlantic due out in November, springs from this primitive tradition. So did 1989's Power City. Its author, Beth Ann Herman, wrote in plugs for a Beverly Hills Maserati dealership in return for a $15,000 book party. Similarly, Internet game placements by the likes of General Motors and Radio Shack also emerge from primeval carnival culture -- as did the product placements secured by Harrah's casino and others in a 1989 Monopoly-style board game titled (appropriately enough) "It's Only Money."

If spin, press agentry, PR stunts and product placements are such staples of the marketing enterprise, why the continuing surprise and outrage over their newer manifestations? Partly, it's because we (by which I mean the "we" in business) tend not to learn from history. (Dodge, which has placed its cars in the MSN Gaming Zone diversion "Dodge Speedway," might want to call Courvoisier and see how much cognac it sold off the "It's Only Money" placement.) Partly it's because the rise of mass marketing and the growth of advertising-infotainment borders turned these mixed messages into the exception, rather than the rule. Exceptions are always newsworthy, and occasionally frightening.

Mass-marketing mess
What should be more frightening to executives in media and marketing, though, is that such border crossings are becoming entirely unexceptional. Indeed, the reversion back to the old-fashioned carnivalesque norm -- on the Internet, TV, in sports stadiums, rock concerts and the fabric of daily life -- is just one more indication of the mess that is mass marketing.

Combine audience and media fragmentation and throw in a dose of market maturity. You've got a recipe for desperation -- among brand marketers who, for some 70 years, have had the ability to reach 80% of their audience via a handful of media vehicles using ads that were stamped out by factories.

Don't get me wrong. Marketers ought to experiment, especially in the face of an atomizing audience. But the carnival is a hard place to pull it off. Just ask the guy doing the high-wire act.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

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