Advertising: A Star Is Manufactured

It seems anytime there’s a chance a human being will be waiting for more than a moment in a particular spot, someone will position an ad message in that very place. After noticing pitches for ice cream confections on gas pump handles in my city last year, I’m waiting for the day when I pick up the phone and instead of hearing a dial tone, I’ll be presented with, “Thank you for using Sprint… to order pizza push 7, to place a phone call push 1.” (Just don’t let that idea get out!)

Of the many challenges facing parents today, one is knowing how to respond to this endless barrage of advertising their children face, and how to teach their young media consumers to know the difference between being entertained and being solicited to. This problem has escalated over recent years as the advertising industry has shown just as much creativity in placing their messages as they have put into creating them.

Not much more than a decade ago, the movie theater was the one place where we could be entertained without the intrusion of advertising – aside from previews of coming attractions. Then came the day when someone dared to run an advertisement before a movie. Now we sit through multiple ads before a movie starts.

But the greatest challenge in making our children “advertising aware,” comes from messages that are embedded into movies and television. In short, advertisers know the less intrusive their ads are, the greater their potential audience is. In other words, sneaky messages appear to sell products much better than obvious advertisements – not only because we’re less likely to be raiding the fridge during the commercial, but also due to the perception that the product is instrumental in the lives of the characters we’re watching.

The most evident use of this tactic is called “product placements.” The movie E.T. was a pioneer in this technique with the little alien’s love of Reese’s Pieces. Today, it’s almost more unusual to not see brand names in a film.

Now this creativity has been raised to a new level. The trade magazine Daily Variety reported that four entertainment industry power-hitters have formed a new company with the appropriately descriptive name Integrated Entertainment Partners (IEP). What they plan to do would make any ad exec green with envy.

Imagine movies where a product shares the screen with the same prominence as a major character. I’m not talking about a guy merely holding a perfectly positioned can of Coke, I’m talking about a movie starring a can of Coke – or at least where the can would be playing a supporting role. (“And now, the award for Best Supporting Product in a motion picture…”)

As groundbreaking as this idea is, it’s old news for television. Years ago, regulations required broadcasters to “come clean” on advertising aimed at children. Amongst the new rules, television stations were asked to clearly identify when a children’s television program was breaking for a commercial – hence the repeated phrase, “We’ll be right back after these messages.”

That warning has become a joke when the child is consuming one of the many cartoon programs that features characters which have been invented for the sole intent of selling licensed products to its viewers – for instance the Pokémon franchise. With a new emphasis on making products integral to a movie or television program’s plot, parents will need to be increasingly diligent in helping children to understand why a pair of brand name running shoes won’t turn you into a basketball star, or why downing a soft drink won’t magically give you bulging muscles. (At least Popeye promoted spinach!)

Companies like IEP will also give advertisers more influence in determining which movies Hollywood chooses to make. IEP co-founder Chris Gebhardt says they will be looking for scripts in which an integrated product will work well. That means an instant cash bonus that will ensure a particular script becomes a major motion picture.

The products will also be carefully selected, with Gebhardt explaining that, "We’ll be looking for products that will help move the story forward and will work with consumers."

The bottom line for parents means even more ways for sponsors to steal “eye time” from your family. However, there is a small upside to this, as corporate advertisers are often more sensitive to audience reaction than are movie studios or television networks.

If that can of Coke appears in a film with high amounts of sex and violent content, a rousing negative response from viewers could make the sponsoring company reconsider similar future projects. And that means studios may be inclined to change course in an attempt to keep new found advertising dollars rolling in.

And now, back to our program…

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…