You’re selling what now?
By Devin D. O’Leary
With the advent of TiVo and other digital recorders, television networks and advertising agencies have been scrambling to find new ways of assuaging big-budget clients upset over the high-tech practice of “zapping.” Zapping is the process of using your remote control to fast-forward past TV commercials. Back in the day, viewers actually had to get up off the couch and go take a crap to avoid commercials. Now, technology allows us to shrug off Madison Avenue with the push of a button. What a bunch of ungrateful bastards we all are. We sit there, watch a free episode of “Three and a Half Men,” produced graciously for our entertainment by CBS, and don’t have the simple decency to return the favor by ordering a Pizza Hut P’Zone when the network tells us to.
As a result of all this uncapitalist behavior, the makers of commercial products (and, by extension, commercials) have had to resort to some out-of-the-box thinking to get their message out. “Embedded” commercials, for example, allow manufacturers to slip their products inconspicuously into all sorts of shows. Paula and Simon and the J-Dog sip away on their towering cups of Coca-Cola each episode of “American Idol.” Jeff Probst points out the lovely GM-made SUV that awaits every “Survivor” winner at the end of the season. With the power of embedded advertising, virtually any show can now be turned into an infomercial.
But that’s not all. There’s also the magic of “viral marketing” (so named for its ability to spread). People too cool to actually watch commercials (embedded or otherwise) will gladly and unwittingly use preexisting social networks to spread the latest videos, pictures, games or even SMS text messages they’ve hunted down online—all of which might be secretly tied to a new product or service. Last year, online conspiracy theorists argued far and wide over some freaky videos showing evidence of giant creatures popping up around the world. Turned out it was just a viral campaign for the new videogame Shadow of the Colossus. Right now, debate rages over some stunning UFO photos taken over Big Basin, Calif. The coming weeks will almost certainly reveal this as an advertising stunt by Paramount Pictures to promote the upcoming Transformers movie.
Even newer and hotter than the viral commercial is the “anti-commercial.” These are commercials so cool they don’t even need to talk about, or be in any way related to the product they’re hawking. Witness the recent spate of “want2besquare” commercials spread across trendy networks like MTV and G4. The effects-laden commercials feature three men in some unnamed Eastern European torture chamber straight out of Saw III. The first two are removed from iron boxes by a grubby doctor to revel in their new surgically altered blockheads. The third emerges unchanged and screams his displeasure at the unethical surgeon. It ends with the website address “www.want2besquare.com.” What’s it a commercial for? The new 2008 Scion xB, of course. Toyota is aiming the vehicle so directly at the under 30 crowd, they’re directing everyone to an interactive website full of games, merchandise and hip non-car-oriented imagery—the thinking being that young people don’t want to be sold a product, merely the “idea” of a product. Welcome to the future, people. Personally, I’m not sold on it.
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