On YouTube, you may not realize you've clicked a commercial until it's played completely through - and maybe not even then. A few stealth ads leaving vapor trails:
Attention, television-viewing public: You've been Punk'd by a lady in red. Mysterious commercials promoting Scarlet, a new "series" from director David Nutter (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), began generating buzz in mid-April. The spots mentioned no affiliated network, but they featured enough explosions and shots of the eponymous ass-kicking heroine (played by model/actress Natassia Malthe) to have Hollywood's A-list lining up for the premiere.
When Brett Ratner - the director of the Rush Hour films and the last X-Men movie, and better known for his romantic dalliances than for his business diligence - launched his branding consultancy with a Guitar Hero spot on American Idol, people who thought only Lindsay Lohan could stir the man were curious. "Brands seem to lack any emotional connections with their consumers," Ratner says. "I strive to help them incorporate culturally relevant material into their products."
From the time they realized that people evaluate brands based on their behavior rather than on calendars and units of time, marketers have placed "creating experiences" on the top of their priority lists. This is nothing new: From the branded utility craze a few years ago to the buzz surrounding Web 2.0, brands have scrambled to build relationships with people. Building connections, like anything else, must be insightfully relevant, and oftentimes marketers make the mistake of thinking that if they build it - all Field of Dreams-like - people will come.
For months, I've been reading about "engagement" in various publications that report on advertising and marketing. Much of the discussion focuses on how audiences engage and respond to programming content - always a useful insight. But, you could have highly engaging content matched with ads that generate little audience participation - or, ads that highly engage but which do not reside in equally compelling contextual environments.
Right around New Year's Day, everyone fires up a crystal ball and predicts the future. So when 2007 gave way to 2008, many believed this would be the year that growth in display advertising would accelerate, fueled by marketers moving branding dollars online.
All the buzz nowadays is about technology. This is no surprise, really. The whiz-bang gadgetry of the new media landscape is utterly extraordinary, so it's well-deserving of all the attention. But when we quit gawking and look closely, we see the coming of something more important than the eye-popping wizardry of widgets, wireless and Wi-Fi. It's a growing shift in when and where we use media, not just a change in what we can do with the media at hand.
We are anectdotal animals - we like to reduce very complex and uncertain times to simple rules or conclusions. Talking heads on cable make an industry out of it; political candidates show as little nuance or doubt as possible. Such abstractions, however gratifying in the short run, usually are the No. 1 cause of people missing a major trend that's right under their noses.
It seems fashionble lately for people in our business to eschew the word "advertising." Somewhere along the line the term became distasteful, linked to earlier times when one-way, one-message communication was enough to do the job of selling goods to the public. Heard of any new ad agencies launching lately? Probably not. Instead, we hear terms like "brand studio," "brand-messaging lab" and myriad other newfangled labels that make what we do for a living sound far more complex and sophisticated.
Good luck getting through an article or conference on digital media without the assembled masses crying, "How are we going to measure it?" While budgets continue to pour into online media, metrics need to expand to assess the true impact.