Curtain Calls

Remember when creatives wore narrow ties and gray flannel suits, drank martinis and worked in offices instead of lofts and warehouses? When TV was filled with dancing cigarette packs and singing gas station attendants instead of hairless talking dogs and soda-swilling underage sex sirens? When an inane jingle, not half a million dollars’ worth of digital effects, was all you needed to make a memorable ad?

Me neither.

But I know all about television’s primordial past and advertising’s central role in it. We live in an entertainment-centric culture, and advertising is as close as you get to entertainment without being in the business. Advertising is entertainment’s little cousin. Slightly less talented and slightly less good-looking, perhaps, but more fun (lots more) than engineering, less venal (somewhat) than law and safer (usually) than police work.

The link between content and commerce is as old as civilization. Throughout history, media has been a creation of ad vertising as much as a vehicle for it. The mix may vary—stone tablets and icons on goblets one millennium, Palm Pilots and personal video recorders the next—but one way or another, selling has always accompanied storytelling.

But advertising’s past is merely a prologue to the bizarre “entertising” future that lies ahead. Advertising no longer wants to be a kissing cousin to entertainment; it wants to get into bed with it.

Beseiged on all sides—clutter, frag mentation, viewer ennui, consumer choice and control, technology that’s ahead of the industry’s ability to adjust—advertisers are looking to entertainers to help them survive.

The resulting deals sometimes reveal advertisers’ drive not just to influence content but to own it.

Look at WPP, which has just signed a joint venture with U.K. production company Shine Entertainment to create TV shows. There are also in-programming initiatives, with advertising embedded into the stories themselves. There are other moves, too, like IPG’s acquisition of one of Tinseltown’s top public relations firms and Omnicom’s purchase of an entertainment marketing company on the West Coast. And all of the major ad holding companies have entertainment and sports-marketing arms.

This is great news for media agencies, because many of them are leading the entertising charge. WPP’s joint venture, for example, will be run through its MindShare and TME/CIA media networks. All those entertainment and sports-marketing operations are, for the most part, housed within the media networks. This not only gives the media shops greater resources and flexibility to create opportunities for clients, it also gives them added power—plus all those neat tchotch kes they love so much.

Media sellers are happy because they can squeeze more blood from the ad stone. Storytellers get more jobs at a time when they desperately need it. The only losers, really, are you and me. That’s because entertising is bound to be less adventurous than old-style entertainment.

If you think naming sports stadiums after corporations is annoying, wait until “FedEx presents Operation Enduring Freedom.”