When advertising mixes with Hollywood, cheap alloy results

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Over lunch last week, the chairman of a leading ad agency was asked about the flirtation between Madison Ave. and Hollywood, and the blending of commercial messages into entertainment content.

His view: Such deals are essentially meaningless and serve solely as ego boosters to marketing directors out to prove they can be "creative" or "risky." Cynical? No. Realistic is more like it.

There are any number of marketing "innovations" being touted these days, but something is missing from the equation in the new marketing math: the consumer.

Marketers are hot on the idea of product placement. They've convinced themselves that giving it a new name (product integration) qualifies it as a creative concept rather than a recycled device from TV's earliest days. In assuming control over storylines and media content, their motivation is not to have a more engaging dialogue with consumers. It is the fear that personal-video recorders will make 30-second ads obsolete. How do you connect to consumers who give you a brusque technological brush-off?

The fear isn't unfounded. In an article in The New Yorker about Hollywood types who used TiVo to record the Academy Awards, each anecdote included a mention of commercials zapped to make the lengthy broadcast more palatable. But marketers' responses so far don't qualify as viable solutions. And they certainly don't have the consumer in mind.

TV networks embrace product integration and experiment with such gimmicks as program repurposing not to satisfy viewer demand but because the escalation of production costs has destroyed their economic model. Similarly, cross-platform integrated marketing programs are about buyers' bulk and sellers' inventory, not consumer innovation.

Product integration is the most dangerous idea because of the real risk of harming the consumer's relationship with both the advertiser and the media outlet. Its defenders say product integration, when done right, can enhance a brand's image and the entertainment experience. Be real: The goals are to avoid being zapped and to sell product. There may be a handful of instances where product integration is a good fit with the content, and perhaps even provides a measure of verisimilitude. Stephen King novels are certainly scarier because his characters live in the same world (i.e., consume the same products) as the rest of us.

But most product-integration deals are clunky and unnatural. They will surely be rejected by consumers-who will no longer trust the advertiser or network that presents them with such transparent dreck. (This may be wishful thinking. The success of televised celebrity-boxing matches proves millions of people enjoy transparent dreck.)

Still, I have faith consumers will reject attempts to disguise commercials as entertainment. Or not disguise them. The Wall Street Journal reported Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln cut a deal with NBC's "Tonight Show" to sponsor concerts on a stage filled with Lincolns. "Lincoln also would like to have the musical performers be driven onto the stage in Lincoln vehicles," the Journal reported. Gee, that sounds like seamless, natural integration. Why not go the next step? Have Jay Leno deliver his monologue on the hood of a Lincoln and interview guests from the front seat. The blatant disregard for the viewer is almost staggering.

Ellis Verdi of DeVito/Verdi warned in the Journal of the danger of overstepping the bounds: "You cheapen the product." He didn't specify whether his reference was to the media product or the advertised product. Let's assume he meant both.

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