When Is An Ad Not An Ad?

So, it turns out consumers aren’t as stupid as some marketers thought they were. Television viewers were quick to notice that their favorite television mob boss always ate his “favorite” cereal and drank his “favorite” orange juice, and they were just as quick to notice that those breakfast products that seem so integral to the plot may, in fact, be paid product placements. Similarly, consumers weren’t so excited to find out the girl buying them a drink at the bar might actually be part of a much larger marketing ploy. Here’s the million-dollar question: Is anyone surprised by the public’s reaction?

There are, of course, other, less deceptive ways of pushing a brand, while still keeping them within the realm of entertainment. Why not package and deliver the brand message itself as a form of entertainment and education? What I mean is, instead of letting entertainment drift more and more into the milieu of advertisements, why not create advertisements that are more and more like entertainment?



Creating a national tour is one way to achieve this goal. It allows a brand, be it a magazine, food category or cable network, to deliver its marketing message in the form of added value and entertainment, without resorting to “in your face advertising,” or even worse, appearing deceitful.

Like a spectacle on a street corner, an exhibit or display on tour invites consumers to come to the brand and see what it’s all about – rather than invade their private time while watching TV with their friends and family.

Last summer, to raise awareness for Court TV’s hit show, “Forensic Files,” Court TV created a tour that provided significant content and entertainment value, in and of itself.

The tour invited everyone from teens & tweens to adults & seniors to find out more about forensic science by participating in a custom created caper: “Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?” Participants made use of real forensic science to solve a made up caper, and in doing so, not only did they acquire significant knowledge about the tools real forensic scientists use to solve crimes, but they also got real entertainment.

In essence, the tour was an advertisement for the network, giving participants an intimate experience with the Court TV brand, but the Court TV products (programming, tagline and brand identity) were cleverly masked behind custom made exhibits and interactive displays.

In essence, a tour like this gives a brand the opportunity to place their products within their own content – therefore eliminating that “blurriness” between content and advertising. The caper conveyed the network’s tagline “Join the Investigation” in such a way that no one felt they were being sold to; quite the opposite, everyone thought they were getting the better end of the deal by gaining some knowledge, and of course that ever so popular free t-shirt.

The tour was such a success that another one is slated for 2003 – and, this time additional sponsors have signed on. What’s interesting about this is that these additional sponsors are actually buying placement inside of something that is nothing more than a pre-existing advertisement itself. Can you imagine Ford sponsoring a Coca Cola television ad? The difference here is that the content of the Court TV tour is so strong that other advertisers don’t see it as an advertisement; they see it as advertisement-worthy content.

The public will continue to have negative reactions to overt product placements, and in spite of that, I believe we will continue to see entertainment include more and more advertising (think of all the product placements in the latest installment of Austin Powers).

I’ll conclude by saying this: Ads aren’t going to go away, so instead of hiding advertisements in entertainment wouldn’t it be nicer to hide entertainment in advertisements?

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