Putting Products in Place Online

On television, “Survivor” contestants vie for bags of Doritos and receive food shipments stamped with the Target store logo. On the big screen, James Bond checks his OMEGA watch as he steps into his Aston Martin. Product placement is everywhere. But where is its place on the Internet?

The fact is, advertising is at once increasing in pervasiveness and dissolving into the landscape. With a small but growing population using tools such as TiVo and AdSubtract to neutralize ads on TV and the Web, marketers are intent on marrying content with advertising to create a potent blend of advertising elixir.

Paying Shaq to shout, “I’m going to Disney World!” moments after winning the NBA championship is a powerful marketing statement. Finding the equivalent for the Internet is a tall order.

Fortunately, a few smart companies are coming up with creative solutions. AmericanGreetings.com, which runs an electronic greeting card site, lets users create and send animated greetings for birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions. In an interesting example of blending content and promotion, the company has built commercial messages into these greetings, so that Flash ads run while people wait for the notes from their loved ones to load.

The result can be compelling. Imagine opening up a note from your best friend with a cute and funny top 10 list for “cool” moms. And let’s say that the message just happens to mention a new lunch snack for kids. It might make for good branding, particularly because it is anointed with the halo of friendship. Advertisers love it; AmericanGreetings.com has placed messages and products in its cards for Kraft, Cingular, Honda, and others.

One of the program’s main strengths is its viral nature. People are much more likely to open an email from a friend or loved one, and the enclosed advertising borrows on the relationship between the sender and the recipient. What’s more, the greetings are often replied to and forwarded, creating a continuing dynamic of which the advertising is a part.

Some advertisers are creating their own product-placement opportunities. BMW has commissioned short films from famous directors and used the Web to distribute them for free. The pieces are top notch, and the only catch is that they all prominently feature BMW’s product.

Measuring these types of tactics based on click-through is obviously ludicrous. Since both the AmericanGreetings.com and BMW approaches are meant to build brand, branding metrics are most appropriate.

Let’s face it: The Web can’t yet compete with Michael Jordan soaring through the air in a pair of Nikes or AT&T’s lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But the Web’s interactivity and viral nature offers tremendous creative opportunities for marketers who want to bring their brand to consumers. It’s up to us to continue to create new and better solutions.

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