Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Soft Sell With Cold, Hard Cash in Mind

A Soft Sell With Cold, Hard Cash in Mind

I JUST spent a languorous afternoon watching a new form of video entertainment, sponsored by advertisers like Budweiser and General Electric on Web sites they have created. Unlike other forms of branded entertainment in which products are embedded in the story line, this genre of programming makes no mention of the products at all.

My first reaction, after sitting through a few clips and episodes, each running a few minutes? Hey, some of it isn’t bad. Among other things, I chuckled at “Truly Famous,” a show about a fake celebrity and his fake entourage trying to scam perks in Hollywood. And I was amused by a silly Japanese-style cartoon called “Samurai” on

On the other hand, I came away from the experience not particularly thirsty for a Bud or yearning for a G.E. stove. That’s slightly unfair, of course: marketing is a complex and mysterious science, and the real test is how a person feels when buying choices are actually made — say, on the bar stool or when buying a house

Generally, as I clicked my way through the afternoon, I went from impressed to entertained to indifferent to bored. In other words, it was just like watching TV. And I did appreciate that the shows themselves were devoid of the relentless product plugs that are ruining a lot of prime-time television and the movies. Yet, knowing how and why this programming came into being, I wondered if it was crossing an unseen line between commercial message and content where consumers ought not to go.

Can material spawned in such a way be anywhere near as effective as traditional advertising, or as good as conventional programming that is born by creative inspiration rather than to help sell something? After all, Samuel Goldwyn once observed (in a slightly different context): “Pictures are for entertainment. Messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Of course, that great movie mogul never lived to see Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken,” the video Web gag from two years ago that helped increase sales of a new chicken sandwich. That presaged a flood of marketer-created programming alongside the more common homemade videos à la YouTube and the video being pumped online by traditional media players like television networks, newspapers and radio stations.

While just about everything concerning online video is an experiment at this point, there is immense interest in figuring out whether this kind of “advertainment” — it begs for a better term — represents a possible new business model for media in a digital world. It is yet another attempt at eliminating the middleman and having a direct relationship with the consumer. TV network executives like to call the Internet a “cable bypass” for their shows, but in this new configuration the advertiser is bypassing the networks.

The idea is to gather the audience you want to reach — basically, inviting them into a marketer’s virtual living room — and to give them a comfy sofa and something to do. (One thing I did not feel inspired or obligated to do was click on those parts of the sites that were more clearly marketing — for example, a G.E. video on solar power, or a couple of funny Budweiser ads.)

It is the ultimate “soft sell,” which is often the most effective form of advertising, says Rich Rosenthal, who runs a new corner of Warner Brothers called Studio 2.0 that was set up to make this kind of programming and is creating a show for

Analogies have been drawn to the early days of television, when shows like “Texaco Star Theater” spurred the medium out of its infancy. But to me, it’s something different: an evolved form of marketing blurred with media. In fact, this type of marketing already has a huge presence in print media in what is known as custom publishing — a business that doesn’t get much attention because it’s not the domain of the cool kids.

Media giants like Time Inc., the News Corporation and Dow Jones are all in some way involved in custom publishing, putting out all kinds of specialized magazines and newsletters for marketers like airlines, hotel chains and industry organizations. As you can imagine, these are rarely celebrated as “hot books,” and their editors don’t make the list of luminaries spotted at Michael’s.

But according to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, an investment bank that focuses on media, more money was spent on custom publishing in 2005 than on the entire United States consumer magazine business: $28.6 billion versus $23.5 billion. What’s more, the category is growing 15.3 percent a year — better than any other so-called traditional medium — and expected to total more than $58 billion in 2010. That, by the way, would be more than double the size of the slow-growing consumer magazine business.

Granted, there is a lot of cringe-worthy dreck in custom-published magazines by the standards of what most people think of as journalism. Yet there are also some fairly interesting postmodern examples of the form. For instance, the argument could be made that Time Inc.’s All You is one, given that it is distributed principally in Wal-Mart Stores. The same goes for Benetton’s well-regarded Colors or even Departures, the travel magazine sent only to American Express cardholders.

In video, is probably the most ambitious effort of this kind so far. And it is not off to an auspicious start: its traffic fell 40 percent in its second month, according to ComScore Media Metrix, and it is quickly rolling out a revamped site.

THOUGH less of a gamble for its corporate owners, “G.E. Imagination Theater” is an equally interesting case study. It was created as a way to convey the megaconglomerate’s new slogan, “Imagination at Work,” but it was done separately from NBC Universal, the big media company that is part of G.E.

Rather, it was conceived and executed by G.E.’s ad agency, BBDO. G.E.’s global head of advertising, Judy L. Hu, told me that the inspiration was the TV variety show from the 1950s called “G.E. Theater” (with Ronald Reagan as host).

“It was a way to explore a new medium and tell a new story,” she explained. The only tie-in to NBC was that G.E. advertised the Web site on the network, which is where I first caught a glimpse of “Samurai.” “That’s always what you want to do as a marketer: Take the old and make it new again,” Ms. Hu said. “You don’t want to walk away from your heritage.”

Unless, of course, you are dashing into a world where old distinctions between media and marketing are becoming increasingly — and at times disturbingly — blurry.

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