Man About Town

I can smell the Maxwell House Filter Pack brewing in my Krupps coffeemaker as I boot up my new iMac. I quickly adjust the Herman Miller chair I got for a steal on eBay. Time to get to work on my new column for Adweek about the differences between advertiser content and product placement. And the horror of it all.

The preceding paragraph is fictional product placement. But old hat. Suppose you saw a copy of Adweek digitally inserted onto Darrin Stephens’ desk in an old episode of Bewitched. That’s product placement, too, but refined (er … revised) for the new millennium. Hmm.

A company called Princeton Video Image might just be the culprit. Heck, they’ve already put a SnackWells package smack-dab in Samantha’s nosy next-door neighbors’ kitchen. It was just a test, so you haven’t been subjected to it. Yet. But say Endora turned Gladys Kravitz into a SnackWells treat? Creepy, eh?

“TiVo be damned” is the war cry as marketers are beginning to show a little technological cunning in preparing for battle in this new media age. (Hell, I’m impressed. It wasn’t so long ago that most of them needed help reading their e-mail.) The next wave of experiments promises to be … uh … interesting. I’ve read a slew of articles on the subject lately, and I’m more than a little flummoxed.

Take the enterprising folks at PVI. They’re the ones who digitally slap the yellow first-down line on the field in televised football games. According to Time, they have the ability (and, apparently, the desire) to insert images such as “a Lexus at a curbside or a box of Tide on a countertop where there was nothing before.” They are reportedly negotiating with such seemingly res pectable shows as Law & Order for this sort of placement in reruns.

I don’t quite get the appeal. “Listen, Mike. We can even make your model the getaway car for the crazed kiddie pornographer! Tons of screen time! Far better bang for your buck!” Why would a respectable automaker want anything to do with it?

Well, ask the head honchos at Revlon. They just plunked down a sack of coin to get their company cast in a 25-week plotline of ABC’s All My Children — as a villainous corporation pitted against the indefatigable (and decidedly fictional) Erica Kane and her Enchanted cosmetics line.

I can hear Ron Perelman now: “Only $7 million to be portrayed as a conniving scumbag? Fabulous! And it’s all fiction, right?”

Personally, I think Revlon has everything to lose. I mean, it’s not like the cosmetics business isn’t unpleasant enough, right? Why pay to be branded an Evil Empire every day for the next six months? Of course, it might give viewers a chuckle or two. Maybe irritable Ellen Barkin — the newest in a long line of Mrs. Perelmans — could be recruited for a couple of bitch slaps from Erica. Hell, I’ll pay for that placement myself!

Even Jerry Della Femina, no shrinking violet, seems a little freaked out about this news, sounding the alarm on CNN’s American Morning: “This is not the first time that this has really happened, but it has been a long time since advertisers had so much influence on program content. I mean, they are going to change it from All My Children to All My Cosmetics!” And if Mr. Della Femina thinks it’s overboard? Whoo-ee.

So this is far more than product placement. It’s content. And despite the furor over that particular word, the concept is nothing new. Ad agencies invented network television, for heaven’s sake. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, J. Walter Thompson produced the first live drama, Kraft Television Theatre, which was “designed to mesh with Kraft’s overall marketing strategy.” Procter & Gamble still produces Guiding Light and As the World Turns, and there are plenty of other entertainment sponsorships, led by Hallmark, that longtime purveyor of wholesome dramas.

But that, too, is different from what’s on the burner at marketing think tanks these days. Now the hot topic is programming in which brands play a substantial role. How such advertiser-driven programming will play out in today’s marketplace is what makes the topic so tantalizing.

It doesn’t seem that complicated. I mean, Federal Express was a critical component to the story line in Cast Away (as was the Wilson volleyball, for that matter). But FedEx didn’t call Tom Hanks with this “marketing opportunity.” It was born out of a real idea. The alternative would have been to create an “approximate brand” — something like “Air Express” — to advance the plot, but that asks the audience to play make-believe. Using real brands simply gives the film a little more verisimilitude.

British novelist Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection, though, stinks of wrongheaded corporate profiteering. The acerbic writer was hired to craft a novel in which the jeweler’s brand plays the title role. Cute? Sure. For an in-store giveaway. As a novel? Please. (Not to worry: It ranks at No. 96,818 on’s sales chart. Let that be a lesson to you all.)

As ad agencies form units to pursue this “modern” marketing, a little logic — and, heaven forbid, good taste — will be in order. Marketers who rush into entertainment vehicles strictly to get their logo or product in front of a supposedly unwitting audience will no doubt be surprised by the backlash. I mean, c’mon. People just aren’t that stupid, OK?

Planner extraordinaire Emma Cook sen of Bartle Bogle Hegarty shared some thoughts with me on the subject. One of BBH’s brands, Johnnie Walker, was recently featured prominently, at no cost, on The West Wing. The impact on sales, she says, was immediate and extreme. “Increasingly, people aren’t willing to give us their attention and interest unless they can see something in it for them,” she says. “And that something can, of course, be entertainment.”

She adds: “First and foremost, any content has to be good enough on those terms alone — as excellent content. And making that happen often requires a much looser, more permissive approach from marketers who are used to controlling every last detail of their traditional brand communication executions.”

Which has its dangers. Some people, I should note, questioned the value of the Johnnie Walker placement, since the scene focused on a character being tempted off the wagon.

But it can go swimmingly. Take last year’s Zoolander. The brand icons that appear in the film (in the person of Donatella Versace, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger) clearly have their tongues firmly in cheek, and the results are intoxicating. But the idea to pepper the film with real brands and people sure as hell didn’t come out of an agency brainstorming session. Like the best of film, the good idea started with a screenwriter and a blank piece of paper. Got it?

I salute anyone looking for smart and interesting ways to get their brand messages in front of the consuming public. I just hope it’s done with equal portions of imagination and daring. The biggest successes will come from those who take their brand stewardship seriously, the flops from those who think they can fool any of the people any of the time.