By Brian Morrissey
It was billed as a throwdown of epic proportions—a cage fight. Proponents of advertising's traditional role of interrupting people through the 30-second spot would square off against the new-school advocates of integrating brands into story lines through what regular people call product placement. Alas, like many boxing matches, this one appeared rigged.
Digitas assembled a panel that included rapper/actor Common, producer Gavin Polone and director Monty Miranda, along with help from judge Nick Cannon, chairman of Teen Nick. (Paula Abdul was scheduled to appear, but she scratched due to a family sickness.) All the panelists, to a varying degree on Polone's part, were advocates of weaving brands into story lines. The bill of particulars against the traditional 30-second spot were familiar: People have TiVo and short attention spans and resent advertiser intrusion. The devil, of course, is in the details. Common said he considers his commercials for Gap and Microsoft's Zune as simply different forms of content. I can see how that's the case. Common recounted how he originally turned down Coke because he thought their brands didn't match up. Then Coke doubled the money. "That made me look a little different at my brand and say, 'Hey, this could work out.' " Kudos for the honesty.
Mark Beeching, Digitas's chief creative officer, admitted he's biased in favor of integration, particularly since Digitas has an entire unit, The Third Act, devoted to branded content. Asked for a show of hands for who was in favor of interruption, just four people in a hall of hundreds dared to raise their hands. Yet the problem came when the panelists were confronted with regular old TV ads that happen to be really awesome. In those cases, the interruption suddenly morphed into welcomed content. Palone recounted how he was "interrupted" with a Kia Soul commercial featuring hamsters. He didn't mind. "When you see a great commercial spot, it's fun to watch," he said. YouTube is filled with great commercials that draw millions of views. Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" is interruption advertising done so brilliantly that people don't mind. By the same token, everyone has seen cringe-worthy moments of product placement. In a sign of the shifting definitions, Miranda recounted how Will Smith's use of a Ford Mustang in I Am Legend was so blatantly commercial that it, yes, interrupted him.
Moreover, the panel didn't address the biggest question: Can really subtle brand integration help an advertiser reach its goals? Cannon, who opted for integration as the winner, might have hit on the true winner in the debate when asked for his opinion on which side won. His immediate answer: "It sounds like a little bit of both."