Welcome to the media marketing future, sucker

June 27, 2005

We may think we know what it means to have commercial media, but our media are now launching into realms of commercialization that will make the 30-second TV spot or the magazine spread seem like cave paintings. Everything you see, read and hear through the media is being inventoried for use as selling tools.

Nielsen, the ratings authority, now tracks TV product placements. That’s when an advertiser pays to sneak frosted toasty-things or designer water into the camera shot. According to Media Daily News, while conventional ad numbers are stuck in the mud Nielsen found a placements explosion, soaring 27 percent over last year. Embedded in the top 10 prime time TV shows were 12,867 placements in the first quarter of this year — more than half as many as all last year.

“I think you’re going to see a quantum leap in the number of products integrated into your television shows this year,” CBS chairman Leslie Moonves told investors.

On TV, it’s reality shows — ironically, considering their supposed spontaneity — that are the most popular venues. Eight of the top 10 shows for crypto-advertising are reality shows. Those 10 accounted for 23,526 “brand occurrences” last year, Nielsen found.

But the paid plugs on TV programs and Hollywood movies, now routine, are just the thin end of the commercialization wedge.

Print media are feeling it. Toyota has asked three major magazine publishers to look into “product integration,” in which mention of its vehicles could be woven seamlessly into apparently editorial content, according to BusinessWeek.

On Broadway, Ad Age reports, the revival of “Sweet Charity” includes a script alteration — approved by author Neil Simon — in which the character who was going to have a “scotch” is now having a “Gran Centenario,” some pricey tequila whose makers are paying to burnish its image.

(For more on the go-go world of product placements see http://www.iTVX.com. That plug is unpaid, incidentally.)

The reasons for this surge lie, in part, in technological changes that have imperiled the traditional ad model, when audiences were presumed to pay attention to the commercials that ran alongside or interrupted the content that was their main interest. With home-based recording technology proliferating, no TV advertiser can be sure when, or if, viewers will see its commercials at all. Print publishers feel pressure to offer imaginative responses to the click-through’s that their online competitors offer as evidence of the effectiveness of Internet ads.

The result is a sense of crisis among advertisers and desperation among media that rely on them.

Product placement is only a first step toward a sweeping commercial transformation of media content. As a Website called Brandedtv.com asks, “Why create a commercial when you can own the show?”

The process is well under way in the video game business, an irresistible venue for advertisers hungry for youth. Here, The Economist reports, plugs last year brought in some $20 million — skimpy, compared with $90 million from so-called advergames. Those are Web-borne interactives built around plots conceived by sponsors ranging from the U.S. Army for guns-ablazing “America’s Army,” to Dodge Motor’s “Race the Pros,” to the UN’s “Food Force,” where the heroes are famine relief workers.

Even podcasting — a new wave audio technology in which iPod-ready content flows through the Internet — is being used for so-called branded content. Durex, the condom maker, can reach its coveted young market through hired podcast talk shows, without suffering the qualms of conventional broadcasters.

And to network TV comes Wal-Mart’s “The Scholar,” a six-week ABC summer series in which the retail behemoth bankrolls a competition among 10 high school students for college scholarships. A company spokesman told The New York Times the series, which is awash in Wal-Mart self-adoration, is “a unique way to get out the message on national television that we’re supporting education.”

Because this process of what media critic Robert McChesney calls “hypercommercialization” isn’t new, its acceleration, which is new, has drawn little opposition. Jonathan Adelstein, a Federal Communications Commission member, recently denounced crypto-advertising as illegal, but the momentum from the ad business for new ways to shape consumer behavior is mighty and unrelenting.

What’s astonishing is that the same public that has proven acutely sensitive to any whisper of political bias in programming is stone deaf to the blare of grossly manipulative communication that our media are eagerly mutating to serve.

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