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No breaking for commercials

MTV Networks and others weave ads into shows' story lines to keep viewers tuned in.

January 28, 2008|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As media-savvy young audiences build ever stronger resistance to conventional advertising, brave scientists in our entertainment laboratories are developing powerful new strains of commercial messages.

There is, at present, no cure for conditions such as cognitive rejection -- "zoning out," in laymen's terms -- but with the billions of dollars being poured into ad budgets, there at least is hope of a breakthrough that could enable marketers to connect with their target demographic.

On the front lines of this quest:

* A pitch for "How She Move," an urban dance movie that opened Friday, was woven into an MTV reality series about teenage girls preparing for a Sweet 16 party.

* A "mockumentary" about a quartet of self-deluded musicians was launched on music channel VH1 in service of the "Rock Band" video game.

* Digitized supermodels vied for a contract with Ford Models in a computer-generated virtual world.

* Young fashion designers backed by Target Corp. became the subjects of a series of mini-dramas.

These ideas all emerged lately from the workshops of MTV Networks, which, like most of its entertainment-industry rivals, is increasingly trying to help its advertisers find fresh ways to keep viewers engaged during the commercial "pods" between its shows and, through so-called integrated marketing, within the shows themselves. They also frequently involve shows, movies or games developed at other divisions of MTV parent Viacom Inc.

"The 30-second commercial is not dead, but it's dying a slow death," said Frank Zazza, head of consultancy iTVX and the marketer who famously placed Reese's Pieces candy in the path of Steven Spielberg's lovable alien, E.T.

Integrated marketing is a high enough priority at Viacom for Chief Executive Philippe P. Dauman to have mentioned it more than once in recent talks with Wall Street analysts as an important source of revenue growth.

All audiences are getting used to consuming media in new ways -- on computers and cellphones and via video-on-demand, for example -- but it's particularly true of people in the 12 to 24 age group, said John Shea, executive vice president for integrated marketing at MTVN Music & Logo Group, which, besides MTV and VH1, includes the country music channel CMT and the gay-themed channel Logo.

These younger viewers are "less married to traditional long form shows and, as a result, more receptive to different forms of content as long as the content is engaging and entertaining," Shea said. "Overall, the audience is very savvy and understands that sometimes 'content' is working hard for a brand or product."

Integrated marketing is an outgrowth of old-fashioned product placement. Jay Newell, an expert in media saturation at Iowa State University, said product placement deals already were old hat in 1949 when the Marx Brothers auctioned off an ad opportunity in their movie "Love Happy." High bidders saw their brands flash by on billboards in the background of a Harpo Marx chase scene.

Appropriately, it is MTV, the pioneer in blurring the lines between advertising and content, where many of these new initiatives are being undertaken. The music videos on which the channel was founded in 1981 are the perfect example of the product as its own advertisement, and vice versa. What could be more integrated?

Although movie trailers can be intrinsically entertaining, marketers such as Shea have learned that they also can get more engagement by threading the DNA of a movie into a TV program. On the reality show "Super Sweet 16," the choreographer of "How She Move" interacted with the girls planning a Sweet 16 party, helping them master dance moves from the film so they could wow their friends on the big night.

A parallel promotion for mobile phones and other wireless devices featured briefer videos with simplified dance lessons.

A different approach was used for "Cloverfield," a horror film in which a monster attacking New York is glimpsed mainly through a small video camera held by one of the characters. In an echo of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," Shea and his team captured the chaotic feel of the movie by breaking into MTV music videos with staticky "news bulletins" about the devastation in Manhattan.

"How She Move" is an MTV Films project, and "Cloverfield" is from Viacom's Paramount Pictures, but Shea said his unit also did work for rival studios. He and his colleague, Sean Moran, an executive vice president for ad sales, declined to discuss the dollar amounts involved in their projects but said that some of them -- the "How She Move" promotion, for example -- take a full year of development.

"We know our audience, and our marketing partners have a belief we are putting butts in the seats," Moran said.

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