“The New York Times” reported Monday that a group of Hollywood business unions are standing against the aggressive growth of product placement in TV programming. Their stand is drawing further scrutiny to this and other forms of stealth advertising the unions claim “deceives audiences.” The Writers Guild of America, along with the Screen Actors Guild, has called for a code of conduct to govern product placement within programming. “The Times” further reports that Gary Ruskin, head of consumer advocacy nonprofit Consumer Alert, said the networks were “already in violation of existing Federal Communications Committee regulations regarding sponsorship disclosure.”
Should the FCC define further regulation (or more aggressively enforce existing regulation), advertisers will have to explore alternatives beyond :30 TV spots to get their products and services in front of consumers.
What does this have to do with online advertising? A whole lot. Options to be considered will necessarily include alternative media. The first option will be where audiences consume video other than on TV: online. Rich media and online video advertising provide intriguing alternatives to, and new iterations of, product placement, branded entertainment, and TV spots in general.
There are many options to consider. Some are already available, some are on the horizon, and some haven’t (yet) been tested. All can provide an experience as immersive and engaging as what advertisers have sought on TV. In exploring these options in the context of what’s currently being done on TV, we’ll find some potentially very new applications of tried-and-true advertising strategies.
These methods are meant to provoke discussion and stoke some creative fires. Read at your own risk:
- Exclusive programming sponsorships. Advertisers have begun to latch on to the concept of exclusive programming sponsorships, such as an ad-free sponsorship of FOX’s “24.” This not only garners a premium ad position surrounding a show but also earn audience goodwill in exchange for the commercial-free experience. More often, we’ve seen exclusive sponsorships of Web sites (such as Sony’s one-day sponsorship of Style.com, or JC Penney’s one-day sponsorship of Slate). But all these really do is replace variable ad inventory with fixed inventory. Salon.com already offers an opportunity for advertisers to sponsor its subscription site, effectively paying for audiences’ access in exchange for viewing ad content. What if we took that a step further?
What if an advertiser were to exclusively sponsor a site’s optional ad-free experience, removing all banner and other advertisements in favor of an up-front, engaging experience or an exchange of information? Rich media and video compression technologies are mature enough to deliver this concept in a way that can provide that immersive experience advertisers seek and add goodwill in the process.
- Bugs/watermarks. TV networks often use “bugs” or “watermarks” in the bottom right corner of the screen to cross-promote their shows. How long will it be until online video sponsorships include this feature to minimize ad invasiveness?
- Branded content/entertainment. Content producers, networks, and advertisers have raced to integrate (the term can be used loosely) products into content, as with Pontiac’s The Ride to Pepsi Smash. What if consumers were empowered to choose their own sponsors? Would audiences embrace the ability to select the advertising that surrounds their content? Although this may be a lesser-of-many-evils approach, there’s a retention and reinforcement opportunity for advertisers. They could make a further impression on a consumer who has already exhibited a brand preference. Advertising could conceivably become more integrated, more intense, and more creative if chosen by the audience.
- Dynamic, relevant ad delivery. Digital cable is already experimenting with delivering advertising to audiences based on their programming preferences. What if we took that idea a step further? Using smart and consumer-generated tags, how about video and rich media advertising that’s served based on the requested video’s content? It would be the Google AdWords-ization of online video advertising. Couple that with cookie-based demographic targeting, and we may have a winner.
- The upfront. Historically, the TV upfront represented advertisers’ recognition of broadcast TV’s power to reach virtually 100 percent of the American public and the limited amount of inventory available to do that with. Add the niche power of the cable networks and fragmented media consumption, and you’ve got a conundrum. Is a paradigm shift occurring in the way advertisers commit to annual spending? Not exactly. As online video consumption habits are more accurately measured and represented by demographics, advertisers will likely shift more upfront dollars to secure key video inventory that will draw a guaranteed minimum audience throughout the year. Music videos, movie trailers, and sports programming seem the most likely drivers — unless someone standardizes the mobile/iPod video market.
It’s often been said there are no new ideas, just variations on the old ones. So long as the online medium continues to mature and advertisers seek new ways to reach fragmented audiences with evolving media consumption habits, TV must innovate to keep up amid increased regulation and consumer skepticism.
In the meantime, it’s up to rich media technologists, ad servers, content producers, and agencies to develop opportunities that will continue to provide advertisers with compelling reasons to consider vehicles other than TV, using the methods and formats they are already comfortable with. This time, it’s with the measurable results, superior targeting, higher efficiency, immersion, and engagement that TV is scrambling to deliver.
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