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Is There No Escape?

In their efforts to grab consumers' attention, advertisers seem determined to fill every available space.

By Louise Story

Supermarket eggs have been stamped with the names of CBS television shows. Chinese takeout cartons promote Continental Airways. US Airways sells ads on motion-sickness bags. Ads show up in elevators and doctors' offices. Name-brand products are prominently displayed in movies and TV shows, and even woven into plots, blurring the line between ads and entertainment.

It's all part of a phenomenon known as "ad creep," in which popular culture becomes increasingly commercialized. Marketers used to focus on reaching people at home, when they were watching TV or reading newspapers and magazines. But today, consumers' viewing and reading habits are much more varied, and devices like TiVo enable them to skip over commercials. In response, marketers are trying to put ads in places where consumers can't avoid them.

"We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time," says Linda Kaplan Thaler of the Kaplan Thaler Group, a New York ad agency, "so we have to find a way to be everywhere."

Little Consumers

Apparently, no consumer is too young. Some school buses now play kid-friendly radio ads, and Walt Disney has advertised its "Little Einsteins" DVDs for preschoolers on the paper liners of examination tables in 2,000 doctors' offices.

Some people have had enough. Last year, "Got Milk?" billboards that emitted the aroma of chocolate-chip cookies were placed at some San Francisco bus stops. When people complained, the city told the California Milk Processing Board to turn off the smell.

Yankelovich, a market-research firm, estimates that a city dweller 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today—which may help explain why about half of the people surveyed last year by Yankelovich said they think marketing and advertising are out of control.

Some ad agencies and the companies that hire them are calling the placement of ads everywhere a waste of money.

"What all marketers are dealing with is an absolute sensory overload," says Gretchen Hofmann, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Universal Orlando Resort.

Prime-Time Placement

The feeling that advertising is inescapable is also being fueled by the increasing use of name-brand items in TV shows and movies, known as product placement (see chart below). In 2006, American Idol topped the list of shows using product placement, with 4,086 occurrences. Marketers are going even further, with entire programs centered around a particular company. For example, Office Max has created Schooled—a reality show about students preparing to enter high school—for the ABC Family channel.

Some advertising executives say that as long as an ad is entertaining, people do not necessarily mind the intrusion. New data released by Nielsen Media Research shows that even TV viewers who have DVRs or TiVo still watch, on average, 67 percent of the commercials.

Revenue from nontraditional ads like those on eggs and motion-sickness bags is still small and hard to measure. Companies spent $387 million on this type of "alternative media" in 2006—a fraction of the $6.8 billion spent on all advertising that people see outside the home.

But advertisers are not able to put their logos everywhere they want. While companies like Verizon and Continental Airlines seem to have had success in giving free pizza boxes to pizzerias, some stores will not accept the "branded" boxes.

Kevin Behnke, general manager of Cosmo's Pizza in Boulder, Colo., says, "It would offend as many of our customers and could cost us as much business as the money we'd save by having free boxes."

*Broadcast Network TV in 2006
Source: Nielsen Media Reseach