It's an Ad, Ad, Ad World

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY JOHN CORBITT

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Blurring the lines between content and commerce seems to be the order of the day in Hollywood. Ad agency Interpublic is said to be considering buying both a literary and a Hollywood talent agency to help find TV and film projects in which it can place its clients' products. Just a few weeks ago, Miramax Films and Coors Brewing Co. announced a long-term alliance that will include product placement in at least five films over the first three years. Meanwhile, Push, Nevada, a new prime-time drama-reality show, produced by Ben Affleck's company LivePlanet and scheduled to make its debut on abc this fall, will prominently feature products from Toyota and Sprint. "If you can make the costs more palatable, you have to look at it," says cbs chief executive Les Moonves, who, while being bombarded with product pitches from advertisers this year, is thus far restricting the cameos to reality shows like Survivor.

Traditional product placement is fast evolving into what agents call brand integration, in which products take center stage. Earlier this year, cosmetics maker Revlon became an integral part of a story line played out over three months on abc's soap opera All My Children, a groundbreaking deal that other advertisers hope to duplicate. BMW's Mini car, a star of this season's product-packed movie Austin Powers in Goldmember, will be the linchpin of a heist in next summer's Paramount release, The Italian Job, starring Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton. "The Mini plays the real hero. It's almost another character," says Tera Hanks, executive vice president at marketing shop Davie-Brown Entertainment, a unit of Omnicom, where placement deals have increased tenfold in the past few years. Meanwhile, the Mini's marketers are turning the car into a conversation piece by plopping Minis down among the seats at sports stadiums in Oakland, Calif., and New Orleans, and resting them atop suvs that drive around cities.

In the ultimate twist, marketing itself is becoming "content" on several new TV shows. Online auction house eBay is working with Columbia TriStar TV to develop a 30-minute program that features profiles of eBay users describing their collections. NBC's ShopNBC cable channel now sells everything from jewelry to computers and smoothie blenders featured on soap operas Passions and Days of Our Lives, and ABC hawks some of its soap-star accoutrements on the Home Shopping Network. This fall Dodge will roll out the Fast Enuff Challenge, a nationwide contest to find the best novice racetrack driver, which will form the basis of a one-hour documentary on MTV. And Who Wants to Be a Millionaire producer Michael Davies is working on a prime-time, commercial-free variety show called Live from Tomorrow that will include segments revolving around new products, like teams of teenagers scampering around the country photographing national monuments with a hot new camera.

When it comes to the blurring of art and commerce, FoodFight! — a digitally animated film to be released for Christmas 2003--may set a new standard. Independently produced by Threshold Entertainment, the small studio that has turned Mortal Kombat and Duke Nukem into billion-dollar entertainment franchises, FoodFight! tells the story of a supermarket come to life, where such brands as Twinkie the Kid, Charlie the Tuna, Mrs. Butterworth and Mr. Clean battle evil brand-X products for control of the shelves. (Guess who wins?)

Larry Kasanoff, CEO of Threshold and former president of Lightstorm Entertainment, the production company of Titanic director James Cameron, insists that his film doesn't technically engage in product placement because Threshold isn't getting paid for featuring the branded stars, which appear primarily in cameos next to other original characters. But he concedes that the participating brands will help with cross-promotion worth as much as $100 million. In his view, product characters are celebrities in their own right, worthy of the same place on the big screen. "In the digital world," he says, "you're hard pressed to tell the difference between Mr. Clean and Arnold Schwarzenegger." Of course, back in the real world, the line between advertising and life is getting just as fuzzy.

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