A 15-year-old walks into the movie theater, iPod in one pocket and download-ready cell phone in the other. He's greeted with a James Blunt tune echoing throughout the lobby sound system, with instructions on where to go online to download the song or buy a ring tone. He gets to his seat, and before the movie starts, he plays an on-screen interactive trivia game via text message. For each answer he sends back, he'll get a new question, via text, in return. And if he answers enough correctly, he might even win a free bag of popcorn.
That bag of popcorn will carry an ad from Verizon Wireless, also telling the teen where to go via his cell to buy an array of products—not the least of which is the cell phone carrier's download music service V-Cast, whose featured artists include pop musician James Blunt. When he gets back to his seat, he'll see Blunt on-screen in a two-minute ad promoting V-Cast.
Welcome to today's cinema advertising, which in just a few short years has evolved from on-screen still slides of local mom-and-pop retailers to multifaceted and integrated campaigns that bring together the screen, digital media and the entire theater to create a brand marketing experience. It's a venue that some advertisers see as an increasingly effective way to better engage elusive teens and young adults who are notoriously distracted from traditional media.
"Right now, because of media fragmentation, we feel that cinema fits a perfect slot for us," said Suzy Deering, director of media and sponsorships at Verizon Wireless, noting that it has become a key part of the company's media mix. "We're looking for an environment where the consumer is not distracted," and movie theaters provide that environment, she said.
Deering added the cell phone carrier will spend a record amount on the medium this year, but won't be more specific than that.
Verizon is one of four national marketers who have just signed their biggest deals to date with New York-based Screenvision, the largest seller of cinema ads in the U.S. The other advertisers are Dodge, the U.S. Army National Guard and, in its first deal with Screenvision, Hershey's.
Combined, the four companies will pay Screenvision $35 million—a high figure by cinema advertising standards. Until 2004, the typical ad buy for a one-month flight on roughly 14,000 screens nationwide was between $1 million and $3 million, according to Screenvision CEO Matthew Kearney.
Cinema advertising is one of the fastest- growing ad platforms—albeit from a small base. According to New York-based media consultant Veronis Suhler Stevenson, spending on cinema ads grew 19 percent in 2005 to $520 million nationally. And the company projects that between 2004 and 2009, annual spending will grow by 15 percent to almost $900 million. Publicis Groupe's ZenithOptimedia projects worldwide spending will climb to just over $2 billion in 2008, up 17 percent from an estimated $1.7 billion in 2006.
While it looks like moviegoers will be seeing more ads going forward, not every film buff is thrilled with the idea. A March 2006 Nielsen Entertainment survey found 54 percent of those surveyed said cinema ads were annoying, while 20 percent said they decided against going to a certain theater to avoid ads.
By way of counterpoint, executives at Screenvision—whose average total monthly audience is about 58 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research—point to National Association of Theatre Owners data showing that of every one million complaints by film goers, less than five had to do with advertising.
Complaints aside, the medium is evolving quickly. Dodge is even showcasing cars in theater lobbies for the first time, as part of the launch of its Caliber series, which hit showrooms in February. Mark Spencer, senior manager of marketing communications for Dodge, calls the car displays an "activation" component to the campaign that lets consumers get a hands-on look at new innovations. The displays complement 60-second on-screen spots and in-theater CD handouts, which offer added information about the car.
For the first time, candy maker Hershey's has agreed to advertise in Screenvision theaters for its Take 5 chocolate bar. As part of the campaign, 1.5 million Take Five bars will be given away at theaters. On-screen spots will direct audiences to a Web site where they can participate in a poll asking participants whether it's "the greatest candy bar ever." As part of the broader campaign, Hershey's is soliciting Web site visitors to create their own ads for Take Five, focusing on the theme of "what lengths they would go to get a hold of one," said Take Five marketing manager Misha Jenkins.
"We're essentially letting consumers decide for themselves," she said.
And the U.S. Army National Guard is devoting most of its ad budget this year to a Screenvision campaign that will include on-screen video spots and a tie-in with iTunes offering free music downloads, said Alicia Wallace, media manager at independent ad agency LM&O. Wallace said the Guard recruitment levels "spike" during cinema campaigns, so it's the medium of choice.