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Has Advertising Sold Out?

  |  February 11, 2003   |  Comments

Is online a place for product placement?

What the heck happened to advertising? I'm not sure if it's the absolute clutter or that Americans are traveling headfirst into a sound-byte mentality.

Online advertising continues to get bashed. Catchy negative headlines about the gone but not forgotten dot-com boom-to-bust still gets ink, causing clients to develop short arms and deep pockets. And don't get me started again on pop-ups. Can't we come up with something new (and positive) to talk about?

Isn't all advertising intrusive? Doesn't advertising have to be intrusive? Agencies and sales folk constantly work to come up with new out-of-the-box ways to have our (utterly creative) messages dazzle the eyes and resonate in the ears of our most coveted consumers. We stay awake at night thinking of new taglines, slogans, jingles, and, yes, vehicles in which to advertise.

On one hand, consumers and advertisers have plenty of new choices, thanks to more programming and new technologies. On the other, some of those choices, including personal video recorders (PVRs) and pop-up zappers allow users to completely skip the ads and commercials. The future (if not current) definition of advertising is an open book.

No matter what our target demographic is, there's one constant: They're time-starved. They are hoop-jumpers, multitaskers, and device junkies. Picture your target talking on her mobile phone while instant messaging friends and sitting in front of the TV. Or driving in the car, listening to the radio, breezing by billboards, and taking an incoming call when the customized ringtone sounds. Get the picture?

Is there any product placement opportunity? I'm asked that question a lot recently.

What is production placement? According to PBS, product placement is a form of advertising in which marketers pay to have a product shown in the media. For example, if a character on a TV show is eating peanut butter and you can see the label on the jar, chances are good it's a product placement.

This form of advertising is hardly new. It can be traced back to broadcasting's early days. Back then, advertisers owned the program. Nowadays, it's like owning the program without wanting viewers to overtly know you do. Think about it, the characters in the WB's hit show "Dawson's Creek" are outfitted by J.Crew. However, kids watching the show don't see huge logos across the T-shirts and sweaters of the characters. The goal is to get the kids wanting to look like Joey or Dawson.

Who's doing it? Well, just about everybody is. CBS's hot show "Survivor" catapulted product placement into a new genre. After starving on the island, contestants who won the challenge were allowed to eat Doritos. The show added so much product placement, its been criticized by many. The line between content and product pitches was crossed repeatedly.

How do we define product placement online? It could be the cleverly designed BMW Films created by Publicis (the campaign even won a Grand Prix at Cannes). Maybe it's presented as an advertorial, such as the ones Sony ran on several Web sites last year. Each story had a "Featured by Sony" subhead. We just ran ads for the NHL All Star Game with "brought to you by Nextel" icons. The difference online is these placements must more clearly indicate who the advertiser is than they would on TV or in feature films.

Before you break a paradigm, be responsible and consider the following:

  • Where are the lines between programming/content and product placement?

  • Protect the relationship of the consumer with the network/station/magazine/Web site.

  • Don't try to disguise an ad. Consumers are smart. They'll catch on and resent you/your brand.

  • Customization still means advertising.

The bottom line: Consumers are barraged. Smart advertisers are integrating, not immersing.

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Seana Mulcahy

Seana Mulcahy is vice president, director of interactive media at Mullen (an IPG company). She's been creating online brands since before the first banner was sold. Her expertise includes online and traditional media planning and buying, e-mail marketing, viral marketing, click-stream analysis, customer tracking, promotions, search engine optimization and launching brands online. Prior to Mullen, Seana was vice president of media services at Carat Interactive. She's built online media services divisions for three companies and has worked with clients spanning financial, telecom, high-tech, healthcare and retail. Not surprisingly, she has taught, lectured and written about the industry for numerous trade associations and publications.

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