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The pitch that you won't see coming

With savvy consumers wary and weary of the old hard sell, advertising has shifted into covert mode.

August 22, 2004|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Robert Liodice, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Advertisers, took the podium before a banquet hall of marketing execs recently to tell them what they already knew: Advertising is dead.

"Consumers don't want to be marketed to like some robotic object," he said, as if debunking conventional wisdom. "Rather, they want to be involved, engaged and, in fact, entertained."

In order to breach a consumer's "initial headset barrier" against advertising, he said, the sales pitch must be "embedded" in something more palatable, such as a TV show, a sporting event, a video game. It must woo with charm and empathy. Liodice laid out the strategy: "First, capture the consumer's attention in human, intriguing and emotional ways. Then, embrace the consumer. Get him or her to feel comfortable with you. Finally, make the sale without really selling. Let the consumer know, hey, we're always there when they need us."

In fact, advertising is more deeply embedded in our culture than ever before. Almost nothing is excluded from branding -- not our cities, our museums, our schools. Even our private lives are being co-opted by corporations desperate to reframe their images as "authentic."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Advertising group -- A Sunday Calendar story on the growing presence of advertising throughout U.S. culture identified Robert Liodice as president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Advertisers. The group is the Assn. of National Advertisers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Advertising group -- An article last Sunday on the growing presence of advertising throughout U.S. culture identified Robert Liodice as president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Advertisers. He is with the Assn. of National Advertisers.

"Stealth" strategies are essential to disarm our cynicism, advertisers say. So teenagers are hired to study trends among their peers and develop ways to reach them -- known as "peer-to-peer" or "viral" marketing. Actors are hired to shill product while posing as consumers in Internet chat rooms or on city streets -- in the name of creating "organic" brand awareness. Logos and slogans are "seamlessly" integrated into the story lines of films, video games, even textbooks.

Consumer activists call this "ad creep" and predict an Orwellian corporate takeover of society. But advertisers herald this movement as the future. Soon, they say, advertising will so effectively impersonate the ideas we use to define ourselves that we won't even consider it selling.

"Advertising," says Jeff Hicks of the Crispin Porter + Bogusky agency, "will disappear."

And, consequently, virtually no experience will be commercial-free.

The future is now

Already, the line is blurred. There were the "street musicians" in San Francisco's Embarcadero BART station substituting AT&T Wireless pitches for Beatles lyrics. And the "spoken-word poets" performing along with a Nissan commercial in a Santa Monica movie theater. And the "tourists" in Manhattan and Seattle asking passersby to photograph them with their new Sony Ericsson camera phones.

Advertisers are hiring companies that do nothing but "outsource the influencer," which means finding the hippest person on every block and sending "street teams" to "seed product" to them, creating "organic" buzz. Magazines are hosting branding events -- celebrity parties, concerts and fashion shows -- paid for by their advertisers, whose products end up in the hands of the "cultural influencers" attending.

Brands are also creating their own product-themed content. BMW, American Express and Nike have produced short films, often broadcast online, and hired major Hollywood filmmakers to direct them. Jeep has created more than 20 video games, two network reality shows and a magazine.

As arts funding disappears and tax cuts threaten local governments, advertisers are paying to brand institutions once considered sacrosanct. New York City has declared Snapple its "official soft drink." Coca-Cola is the "proud sponsor" of the National PTA. Orkin has sponsored an exhibit -- the O. Orkin Insect Zoo -- at the Smithsonian Institution. And at Walt Disney Concert Hall, an auditorium is named for the Ron Burkle Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation.

In this reality, brands are personified. They are "living, breathing entities that have DNA," says Jeep's vice president of marketing, Jeff Bell, who describes his company's brand as "more of the singer-songwriter, but it also feels great on the beach.... It's the only brand I know of that's very, very comfortable in camouflage fatigues and also at Woodstock."

Ad agencies develop "ethnographic" and "psychographic" profiles of their brands -- whether snack crackers or luxury cars -- before conceptualizing the campaigns. Once the "personality" is determined, a series of decisions follows, such as which events to sponsor, which celebrities to sign as spokespeople, which genre of movie to be featured in.

Hollywood, not surprisingly, is benefiting enormously from increasingly sophisticated product placement. Just 10 years ago, film studios and TV networks paid exorbitant fees to use brand-name products as props. Today, the roles are reversed. Advertisers often subsidize entire TV productions or movie marketing campaigns for the privilege of featuring their brands.

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