A Model Ad Buy

The closing of Web site and TV show Firebrand sparked a discussion last week about ads being treated as content online. If marketers can make their messaging relevant and present it to consumers in a contextually appropriate place, the ads-as-content model can work.

In the case of Firebrand, the common thread among its content was simply that it was good advertising. Ads could promote a car or sell cat litter; the topic was irrelevant, as long as the ad was well executed.

Online, we know the item and product category being marketed has a great deal of influence over its success. They drive our media strategy, buying decisions — even the type of ad unit we choose to employ.

Take fashion and beauty, for instance. This is one product category that has a lot going for it. Much of it appeals to a young demographic of trendsetters and influencers — the same consumers who have embraced social networks and video sites. What a perfect opportunity for advertisers to employ an unconventional method of marketing like creating content out of advertising, particularly when there are companies building their businesses on this very model.

By now most media buyers are familiar with Glam.com, thanks to a potent combination of stratospheric traffic, CGM (define) (through its vast network of partner blogs), and a distinctive approach to promoting its brand clients. If you want to increase exposure of your product among style- and trend-conscious Internet users, Glam will present it to bloggers and encourage them to post reviews and personal experiences in text and video form.

To the consumer, the content appears authentic — and in a way, it is. Glam doesn’t tell its bloggers (who it shares ad revenue with) what to say. But there’s an unspoken understanding that their reviews had better be good.

Ford Models — the same company that’s been around for 60 years and launched the careers of Sharon Stone and Angelina Jolie — operates on a similar platform. After decades as a B2B (define) company, matching models with brand and retail clients, it launched a digital B2C (define) side and last year introduced ads-as-content in video form. The company built an in-house digital production studio and started shooting footage of its models, makeup artists, and hair stylists pontificating on, among other things, their makeup, hair tips, and favorite clothing trends.

When approached by an advertiser, Ford will first determine her objectives (for example, increase awareness of a new makeup line for spring), then check its existing calendar of upcoming programming content to see where the product might fit (perhaps in a video about getting ready for the prom). Models are given the products and asked to use them and share their thoughts on film.

Sometimes a video will feature a product placement that wasn’t paid. It’s all up to the models, whose primary goal is to offer aspiring industry stars and glamour-hungry consumers a sneak peek into their lives.

Advertisers like Bluefly.com and Express have had their products incorporated into Ford content in recent months; Bluefly’s fall bags and shoes were perused and ogled by two Ford models, while Express Jeans were promoted through a contest run in conjunction with Ford Models, the winner of which styled a photo shoot captured on tape.

Advertisers who take this ads-as-content approach must be willing to give up some control — nothing new for those accustomed to playing in the CGM and social media space. Ford, for example, is adamant that heavily produced commercials don’t perform as well as authentic, P2P (define) type content, so its clients don’t get the luxury of final cut editing. However, advertisers can view the content before it goes live, syndicated to Ford’s YouTube site and other video properties, social networks like MySpace, and portals like iVillage.

The topic of ads-as-content can’t fully be explored without addressing the issue of consumers. How do they feel about topical ads-as-content?

“Our impression is that if you are giving away content for free, it’s OK to have it underwritten and sponsored, as long as you’re upfront about it,” said Mitch Grossbach, Ford Models VP, corporate and business development. “Some of our videos get millions of views. We’ll get comments (on message boards) asking if videos are paid. We say yes.”

Call it the next generation of infomercials. Only with informative digital content consumers actually want to see, these ads-as-content models stand to be far less annoying.

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