Sunday, November 18, 2001

Breakfast at Target

The Baltimore Ravens play at PSINet Stadium. Tiger Woods competes at the Buick Classic. Wal-Mart brings you The Backstreet Boys. Those are just a few examples where company names festoon arenas, sporting events and music tours, endeavors where the name of the main act used to run solo. Yet, considering the costs, it's not surprising that the responsible parties would look to maximize their profit and minimize their risk by having a little corporate backing. Don't call it selling out; call it reaching out.

You can theorize that it's just the next logical step in the history of advertising. First came commercials. But those have become so pervasive as to be rendered invisible and therefore all but worthless. Then came product placements. There we see a car or computer or cell phone prominently placed in a scene, offering a not-so-subliminal hint to the viewer. But would you run out and buy an Apple Powerbook just because Tom Cruise uses one? Or do the same for the Nokia phone that Julia Roberts sports? Or the new BMW driven by Pierce Brosnan? Considering the cost of the appearance, the ad guys certainly hope so... but it's not likely.

But these are both the height of subtlety considering the ground being broken this season. For starters, there's Fay Weldon's new novel, due to be released this fall. In it, the best selling novelist doesn't just make reference to endorsable products... she sets the whole story in one. "The Bulgari Connection," her new mystery, was commissioned by the jewelry retailer to celebrate the opening of a new store in London. Weldon decided to call a spade a spade after she signed a contract with Bulgari for a minimum number of product mentions in the story. The, rather than simply slipping a few references into the plot, she created the ultimate coffee table vanity book for Paolo and Nicola Bulgari, respectively Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the company,

All this is fair enough. After all, for years artists and photographers have been commissioned by commercial ventures to create materials used in ads. The only difference here is that Weldon is now choosing to release the book to the general public and charging for it again, in effect getting two for the price of one. However, it's not like the literary police are going to come and take her away. As she says, "Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck!"

And then there's the joint promotion coming from the TNT Cable Network and Kimberly-Clark. On the face of it, it's hardly surprising. After all, there is a long history of major corporate support for television programming beyond plain old commercials, as in the "The U.S. Steel Hour," "General Electric Theatre" and "The Hallmark Hall of Fame." But in each of those instances, the company in question lent its name and money to a programming series unrelated to its specific business. An association with quality was all they were after, one that would hopefully rub off on their image.

Contrast that with what Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex brand tissues has done. They will be the exclusive yearlong sponsor of a series of movies, all picked because they're tearjerkers. Each film... still to be selected, but expected to include such offerings as "An Officer and A Gentleman" and "Steel Magnolias..." will be the kind calculated to make you cry tears of joy or sadness. They will feature a "Kleenex Rating System," giving viewers an idea of just how many tissues they'll need in the course of the broadcast. The goal is simple: to make a box of tissues as indispensable when you're watching a movie as a bowl of popcorn and a giant box of jujubes.

This opens up all kinds of advertising gambits. Sure, we see pickup trucks advertised during football games, and even pots and pans during cooking shows. But just as Weldon's book shilled shamelessly for a retailer and Kleenex is ranking films on the basis of the need for their product, so too might we begin to see the connection between content and sponsor get a little chummier. Not as simple as "Sex and the City" being brought to you by Ortho, the makers of birth control pills, or pharmaceutical firms sponsoring "ER," we'll see the plots thoroughly intertwined with the products... to the point that you won't be able to tell them apart.

Up till now it's been a causal relationship at most. Sure, the Plaza Hotel was featured in "Home Alone 2" and no doubt money changed hands. But there was still a storyline that was independent of the property. Are we in for dismissing the plot lines in favor of primetime infomercials? Put another way, would Audrey Hepburn have been just as glamorous in "Breakfast at Target?"

It's only a matter of time until it becomes routine. In that light, you can expect the opening of "Law & Order" to begin, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police, who work with agencies like McGowan Detectives, specializing in domestic dispute cases for 30 years... 'We get our man and your alimony, every time,' says Buzz McGowan, company founder... and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders, successfully represented by Dewey Cheatum and Howe, defenders of everything from shoplifting to murder one. These are their stories.... and here their phone numbers. Operators are standing by."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is willing to talk to potential sponsors of this space. Paragraphs can be had cheap. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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