Microsoft Tries for Better Cinema Ads

Strikes branded-entertainment deal with National CineMedia

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People expect to see trailers for other films when they go to the movies, but increasingly audiences have been subjected to ham-handed, repurposed ads for other kinds of products while they wait for the feature to start.

Now, Microsoft is attempting to create dedicated ads for the pre-movie experience that will actually entertain viewers. The tech giant has signed a two-year deal with National CineMedia (NCM) to use two-minute cinema spots, plus interactive in-lobby display ads and on-package promos, in NCM’s 183 markets (19,300 movie screens) nationwide.

It’s the first time that the cinema network has attracted a long-term advertiser to its platform after a 10-year history of one-off campaigns with Microsoft as well as others including Samsung, Old Navy, Kraft, Taco Bell and Best Buy. In the new arrangement, Microsoft plans to push the Windows Phone 8 before showings of such films as The Hobbit, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and others.

“We see cinema as a great way for us to go beyond that 30-second TV ad and continue a conversation with consumers in an interesting way,” said Betsy Webb, gm of global media at Microsoft Marketing. “Branded entertainment on the big screen will let us tell stories about people’s lives and how they use technology.”

The creative running this winter will feature the “life story” of Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. The long-form spot will detail how the volleyball player uses her Windows Phone 8 to Skype with her husband and three kids while training for the 2016 Olympics. Unlike past in-cinema efforts, the brand contends, these ads will come across as informative sponsored entertainment instead of dry product pitches. Starcom MediaVest’s content division, LiquidThread, is handling the creative. The agency will also promote Microsoft’s tablet device, Surface, as well as the company’s Xbox and Windows 8 operating system down the road, marking the first time Microsoft is promoting its portfolio of consumer electronics in movie theaters.

Nielsen has tracked in-cinema ad spending for international markets in recent years and plans to start measuring spending in the U.S. in 2013. Spends in trend-setting Asia, per Nielsen, grew by as much as 40 percent in 2012, suggesting the space is indeed an emerging force. Globally, the firm found that in the first half of last year only Internet (+7 percent) and radio advertising (+6.6 percent) grew more than in-cinema (+6 percent).

Paul Lindstrom, svp of custom research at Nielsen, said in-cinema advertising is growing with marketers trying to reach 18- 34-year-olds as TV viewers age.

Moviegoers are a captive audience. The big screen and surround sound also appeal to marketers, he said.

“Microsoft could be a tipping point,” he said. “Once somebody recognizes the value, other brands will start taking a more serious look.”

That might as well be soundtrack music to the ears of Cliff Marks, president of marketing at NCM. “I believe Microsoft will show that in-cinema branded entertainment is not just something being talked about,” he said. “It’s being done, and done well.” 

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.