To boost DVD movie sales, let people into theaters free

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Here's a chaos scenario for you: What if the advertising industry spends billions of dollars to build an elaborate infrastructure of new-media technology to chase down the elusive consumer, and suddenly the consumer isn't so elusive anymore?

What, if after all that gearing up, consumers resume their more traditional ways of receiving ad messages and the new technology lies in an unused heap like Global Crossing's excess capacity?

There are signs that this possibility isn't so far-fetched. The ad industry is counting on product placement in movies, TV shows, electronic games and mobile phones to be its salvation, but the ugly thought is beginning to seep into people's brains that one reason box-office receipts for movies, and most recently DVD sales, are off is because movies are increasingly one gigantic product placement. Consumers object to paying for entertainment when they're being sold stuff as part of the deal.

Dreamworks, for instance, gave investors a nasty surprise last week when DVD sales of "Shrek 2" were way off projections. Movie moguls are beginning to fear that they have to bring out DVDs much closer to a film's release to stimulate both movie and DVD sales.

If consumers aren't going to the movies as often, and they're not buying DVDs with the same fervor, how are they spending their newfound extra time? There's evidence that the new wide-screen and plasma TV sets, not to mention high definition, are sparking a resurgence in good old-fashioned TV viewing. The kind of programming they're returning to, by the way, is not reality shows-the genre that is the most blatant with product placement.

As Peter Weedfald of Samsung pointed out at our AdWatch conference last month, movie theaters are turning into showrooms for DVD sales.

It's the same idea as buyers being charged $10 to kick the tires at their local auto dealer, Peter said. The producers of "Cinderella Man" are offering your money back if you didn't like the film, and I predict it won't be long before movie companies will let people into theaters free to drive DVD sales (especially to movies where they can't sell many tickets anyway and also to movies loaded with product placements). They would still overcharge for a stale box of popcorn.

But the basic problem with all these new ways to move the merchandise is that they don't have the capacity to actually sell anybody, and as the old ad agency Benton & Bowles used to say, "It's not creative unless it sells." Besides, what could be more uncreative than showing a close-up of a Tissot watch (cool though it may be) in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith?" Is this where evolving technology is taking us? It seems to me we're going backwards, not forward, and any meaningful measurement of advertising effectiveness will remain elusive.

Leonard Lavin, the guy who built Alberto-Culver, made a lot of sense last week in a letter to the editor. "The weight of a TV commercial must remain, as it always has been for truly successful spots, on demonstrating the product and establishing unique and verifiable claims. Persuasion has always been, and remains the key. And, I am afraid, it is too often missing from many ads today."

Aligning your destiny with the product placers leaves too much to chance, Mr. Lavin contends. "To turn the reins of their business over to anyone that has any other goal than brand building is to put their business at risk."

Product placement does not equal brand building, and all the latest technology can't make it so.

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