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Commercial Tie-Ins, Product Promos Invade MTV

Strapped for cash, major record labels have been sneaking marketing messages into videos.

March 31, 2003|Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writer

In her recent music video, rapper Ms. Jade is swerving on a dark city street to the beat of her song "Ching Ching." She's behind the wheel of a sparkling, tank-sized Hummer H2, as is a rival racing alongside.

The Hummers seem to get as much screen time as Ms. Jade.

That bit of product placement cost the Hummer's manufacturer, General Motors Corp., some $300,000 -- more than half the expense of the video produced by Interscope Records. It also represented another win for record labels in the catch-me-if-you-can game they're playing with MTV, which has prohibited advertising in videos.

Major record companies, strapped for cash amid flagging CD sales, have been defying MTV, teaming up with advertisers willing to help finance costly videos in exchange for product visibility.

In the past, MTV screeners -- worried that the cable channel's savvy teen and young-adult audience would rebel against that kind of selling -- have forced labels to blur images of products or logos that found their way into videos. But "Ching Ching" and other clips financed in part by corporate sponsors have sneaked in under the radar.

Faced with the record industry's miserable economics, MTV's gatekeepers now suggest gingerly that they may allow some marketing messages in videos -- but only if they decide that a product placement is discreet and fits with a clip's theme or story line. So far, they haven't.

"We're trying to be as sensitive as we can to the labels' financial issues without risking the trust of our audience," said Tom Calderone, MTV's executive vice president of music and talent.

MTV executives have placed the burden of disclosing private advertising deals on the record companies. For now, Calderone said, "we're going to have to trust that they would be upfront and honest with us."

But record executives say privately that they have little incentive to disclose the involvement of outside sponsors.

MTV, they note, has unknowingly aired ad-supported videos from such acts as rhythm and blues singer Tweet and dance-music trio Dirty Vegas without repercussions, though MTV has moved to block tie-ins when executives have owned up to them.

Last year, for instance, the channel ordered that shots of Pepsi Blue be edited out of a video by fledgling rock band Sev after Interscope notified MTV of a product placement deal, channel officials said.

The creation of a kind of promotional "gray market" has spawned its own product brokers: Band Ad Media and HP Media, a pair of Los Angeles firms that act as go-betweens for advertisers and entertainment companies, have been meeting lately with several labels to discuss matching artists with products.

Some in the industry believe it's just a matter of time before the music video turns into a powerful sales tool not only for musicians but for almost anything they might drive, play, wear, eat or blow up in a clip.

"MTV's going to have to rethink what videos are and what content is," said Lance Jensen, creative director at Modernista, a Boston-based advertising agency that handles the Hummers.

"A video is a commercial. Here's Levi's, here's my Sprint phone and here's my Adidas. So what? It's going to happen."

That sort of "blatant commercialism," MTV's Calderone insists, isn't appropriate for the Viacom Inc.-owned cable channel. "It's a music video, not an advertising vehicle. That's why there are commercials."

But Mark Humphrey, Band Ad's operator, said the 11% drop in album sales last year is forcing labels to hook up with advertisers or forgo music videos altogether. The track record at MTV, he said, suggests that labels can slip in commercial tie-ins that are clear enough to satisfy advertisers while avoiding detection .

"If we're smart enough with our production design, we can slide by them left and right," Humphrey said. "It's like drugs across the border."

Humphrey, a former sales executive at a video production firm, said labels also can sidestep MTV restrictions by placing an artist's song in a TV commercial for a particular product and then replicating the ad's feel in a music video, though without showing the product. The goal: to build an association in the viewer's mind.

Credit card firm American Express Co., for example, cut a deal to use singer Sheryl Crow's single "Soak Up the Sun" in a TV spot -- and to help pay the cost of the single's video, Humphrey said.

American Express contributed about one-third of the $900,000 spent shooting the video in Hawaii, then used some of the footage for its own ad, Humphrey said. No American Express cards appeared in the video.

The rise of ad-supported music promotions comes as tensions between some labels and the music-video channel simmer because the balance of power between the two has shifted.

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