Advertisers, who seem determined to plaster their messages everywhere, are about to turn horses and jockeys into billboards.
The California Horse Racing Board has voted to drop barriers to advertising on jockeys' apparel, owners' silks and race tracks' saddle cloths. The move allows the racing industry to join in what has become an escalating advertising assault.
The average American already is being bombarded with at least 3,000 marketing messages daily, ranging from radio jingles and billboards to apparel logos, Internet banner ads and free samples left hanging on doorknobs.
Advertisers acknowledge that most people notice only a small percentage of the thousands of marketing messages they're hit with daily. But, driven by fear that consumers soon will be able to zap the mainstay 30-second TV commercial with personal video recorders, marketers are scrambling to find in-your-face advertising platforms that can't be ignored.
"The simple fact is that traditional advertising isn't working well," said Atlanta-based marketing consultant Al Ries. "If it were, you wouldn't see so many advertisers looking for new ways to spend their money."
Advertisers are winning starring roles in new television shows, painting their messages on concrete barriers in parking spaces and seeking permission to insert products electronically into TV reruns.
But it's unlikely that horse racing will end up looking like logo-covered NASCAR, or that jockeys and horse owners will command the big-dollar endorsements of big-league sports.
"The bottom line is eyeballs equal exposure value," said Don Hinchey, director of creative services for Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing company. "You have to ask how prominent the exposure is going to be, is it going to occur during marquee events and is it going to be televised?"
What could it be worth to put a corporate logo on a jockey's back or on the owner's colorful racing silks? In England, advertising generates an estimated $4 million to$6 million each year.
"How revenue would look here is an unknown," said former California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, now president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "We first have to have all of the [proposed] rule in effect. Then it would depend upon negotiations between the parties on how we agree to proceed."
Like placing ads on jockeys' clothes, many of the new marketing maneuvers are decidedly low-tech. Procter & Gamble is "Charminizing" rest rooms at the California State Fair to illustrate the tangible benefits of its paper products. And speaking of a captive audience, Monster.com last week carved its corporate logo into a five-acre field under the glide path of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Technology is aiding the pitching process.
For example, negotiations are under way to allow digital technology companies to drop images into reruns of popular television shows--think of soft drink cans and computers popping up on desks during reruns of your favorite detective show.
Hard to Distinguish Competing Messages
And Chatsworth-based AVG is adapting audio-animatronic technology honed in amusement parks to serve as three-dimensional salesmen along store aisles.
Is it all getting to be too much?
"This is a time of tremendous arrogance and overreaching by corporate America," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader. "Corporations are trying to lay claim to every micrometer of space for commercial advertising. They don't view anything as sacred anymore. And that's an abhorrent way to live."
The blizzard of competing messages makes it hard to distinguish one pitch from another. New York-based market research firm CMR, for example, now tracks advertising expenditures by 900,000 brands.
The result is a growing wave of alternative product pitches. Ads are showing up inside other ads--such as the Motorola cellular phones that regularly pop up in Levi Strauss' denim-wear commercials.
"It starts when you turn on the radio in the morning and read your newspaper," said Monica Karo, chief media officer for New York-based advertising agency TBWA Worldwide. "You can only absorb a small percentage of it all."
But marketers probably won't ease up on the advertising throttle.
"Go into the supermarket and you see messages on the carts and stickers on the floor near where products are sold," said Kevin Coyne, executive vice president with New York-based advertising agency Bates North America. "Competition is so strong that marketers keep experimenting with new ways and means to get messages out."
Advertising agency Chiat/Day /TBWA has slapped ads on bananas, coffee cup sleeves, gas pump handles and dry cleaners hangers. The ad agency hung up on a company that offered to print ads on condoms and balked at a legally questionable pitch for stickers that bartenders could attach to bills while making change.
"We've used napkins, coasters, swizzle sticks and signs on bathroom stalls," Carl Washington, founder of Urban Marketing Corp. of America, said. "We'll put picket signs and temporary tattoos on good-looking women. We've used mimes [and] robots."
Advertising's in-your-face attitude is evident in "pop-under" ads that appear when consumers visit certain Web sites. The irritating ads won't go away unless consumers manually close them.
As advertising intrudes more into consumers lives, "some people are going to get really upset because they feel like they're being hustled," longtime marketing consultant Jack Trout said.
IBM in April drew the wrath of San Francisco city officials with a graffiti advertising campaign that went awry. Work crews had to use a high-pressure mix of water and baking soda to remove the cartoon-like stencils from city sidewalks.
NFL Blocks Use of Special Sponsorships
The new wave of advertising might make existing advertising less effective. The NFL's television broadcast agreement, for example, prohibits networks from generating added revenue by selling sponsorships for the kickoff, halftime show and play-of-the-game. The league hopes to safeguard the effectiveness of 30-second commercials that are at the core of the NFL's advertising game plan.
The heightened effort to get messages in front of consumers is perhaps most noticeable in television, a medium closely tied to advertisers. But the days of slipping a product into the mix are long gone--advertisers now want starring roles. Observers say it's a marriage of necessity.
"Back in the '50s, TV needed advertisers to be there, so network television was all about sponsors," said Lou Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Initiative Media Worldwide, which places more than $5 billion in ads for such companies as Disney and Home Depot. "Well, with fragmentation of the audience, and erosion of market share, TV needs advertisers again, and they're being forced to go courting a bit more."
Networks are moving past simple product placements--such as putting Apple computers on desks--and writing products and services directly into scripts. And advertisers increasingly are dependent on placements to sell their goods and services.
The reborn Nissan Z sports car won't roll into dealer showrooms until next summer, but its handlers are on the prowl for a starring role in a feature film--what marketers call a hero-car placement.
Nissan will spend freely on traditional television advertising when the 2003 model year vehicle debuts. But the desired cameo would grease the marketing skids.
"It's the endorsement that money can't buy," said Lori Cloud, a Los Angeles-based marketing executive charged with finding a parking spot in Hollywood for the Z car. "There's a halo effect when a highly regarded director uses your product or Gwyneth Paltrow wears your clothes."
Taco Bell, Nokia and the new Jeep Liberty SUV will have starring roles tonight when "Murder in Small Town X" debuts on Fox. Filmed earlier this year in a small town in Maine, the semi-scripted show revolves around 10 contestants who must solve a murder/kidnap plot. Contestants and actors drive Jeep Liberty SUVs, chow down at the local Taco Bell and chase leads with their Nokia cellular telephones.
"What we're trying to do is introduce [advertisers] in a way where they don't stick out," said "Small Town" creator and executive producer George Verschoor, who previously worked on "The Real World," an unscripted MTV show.
Cars--along with colas, credit cards, cellular telephones and computers--will share the spotlight in "The Runner," an ABC show that is expected to debut in January. The unscripted show would follow a contestant who makes a cross-country dash to claim a prize.
Network executives won't discuss financial terms of advertising deals being struck. But industry sources say Target and other advertisers whose logos and products appeared in the "Survivor" television shows spent $5 million to$15 million for commercials and in-show placement.
Sources also say WB is asking advertisers to purchase $1.5 million to $3 million in commercials to qualify for placement in the network's "Lost in the USA" series, which will send contestants on a nationwide scavenger hunt.
Advertising Attempts to Become Organic
Organic is the operative buzzword among network executives, producers and marketers, who say they'll avoid such incongruous moments as "Survivor" contestants munching Tostitos that magically appeared on their desert island.
Commercial Alert's Ruskin argues that Corporate America's incursion into entertainment "is creating a backlash. Consumers don't want [advertisers] hanging a jingle in front of their eyes at every moment."
Verschoor counters that "advertisers will organically fit into the story. . . . What we don't want is someone going to the Jeep dealership for a clue."
The "Small Town" role represents "an organic way to integrate our brand into the show," said Debbie Myers, vice president of media services, entertainment and licensing for Irvine-based Taco Bell. "If you had a 'Gilligan's Island,' it would not make sense for us. But there are [restaurants] in small towns, people do eat, so it's a natural fit."
Marketers and broadcasters argue that brands are so much a part of consumers' lives that their absence creates a disconnect. "If you're forced to use fake telephone numbers, such as '555-1212,' that takes the audience out of the narrative," said Keith Quinn, vice president of marketing for Live Planet, the Santa Monica-based producer of "The Runner." "Well, if you have to use some fuzzy brand, that also takes you out of the narrative."
That logic drove Santa Monica-based Threshold Cos.' decision to use such corporate icons as Charlie the Tuna, Mr. Clean, Uncle Ben and Chef Boyardee to fill out a cocktail party during the opening moments of its upcoming "Food Fight" animated feature film.
The party is designed to quickly set the scene for what happens in a supermarket after the doors close. Rather than manufacturing fake brands, Threshold Chairman Larry Kasanoff got permission from P&G; and other consumer goods companies to use their well-known icons. "We needed real brands or people wouldn't believe us," Kasanoff said.