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by Jesse Thomas


Net Films


At their best, these branded movie shorts are entertaining, engaging, and great sales tools. At their worst, they’re just overly long ads

When BMW launched its first batch of Internet films centered around its cars in 2001, a new advertising genre was born. The short movies, directed by big-time Hollywood directors such as Tony Scott and John Woo, featured edgy actors, including Mickey Rourke and Gary Oldham. The films, known now as “branded entertainment,” shattered expectations for viewership and were even reviewed as “cinema” by Time and The New York Times.

Cars are particularly well-showcased in these ad-entertainment hybrids, which are themselves advertised through traditional media as well as online links, banner ads, or on-site promotion. But other companies are getting in on the act. Dr. Martens and Amazon.com (AMZN ) recently launched Net films of their own. While not all of the new short films match up to BMW’s, there’s no denying that the form is here to stay. When done right, the Net short is a medium that can draw in an audience rather than beating it over the head — and afford the marketer a more effective tool for extended communication than 30-second TV advertising.

COOKING WITH JESPER. Take the series of Internet films sponsored by Ford’s (F) Mercury brand. Arguably, nothing remotely hip or interesting has graced this brand since Lyndon Johnson was President — until now. Last month, its Web site launched a series of Net films that will stretch over five weeks. Called Meet the Lucky Ones, the series is built around 10 characters with intertwining stories. The films feel a little bit Twin Peaks and a little Royal Tenenbaums.

The Lucky Ones pass the test that any film should: They draw in the viewer. And that’s the point of Net films compared to mind-numbing, forgettable TV ads. I find myself not only watching the new Mercury films as they unravel each week, but rewatching the ones from previous weeks — and not just for the purposes of this review. These are cool characters, and there’s an interesting tangle of life unfolding. Alan, a laundromat manager is ensnaring the lonely and somewhat older Alice in some web of his own design. But what? And how about young Jesper, who has already cooked a frog and just picked up a dead bird for his next dish?

What does any of this have to do with selling cars and SUVs? Tied into the site is a sweepstakes offer giving away a Mercury Mariner, a new SUV that’s aimed younger than any other Mercury in the showrooms, part of Ford’s attempt to reposition the brand. It’s also about attracting eyeballs that would otherwise avoid or ignore Mercury’s TV and magazine ads. There’s no rebate message, no talk of rack-and-pinion steering.

In the first two weeks, Mercury’s site got 825,000 unique visitors, with almost 300,000 clicking over to the Net films. That compares with about 200,000 unique visitors in a normal week. Mercury’s numbers should grow as those who get sucked into the story talk to their friends about it.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S ADS. That’s what happened to BMW. Within three months of launching the films, BMW had some 9 million unique visitors viewing and downloading its films, with 214,000 hitting the site in the first week. Eventually, the films were distributed on DVD and even run on a DirectTV channel.

Net films, if they do nothing else, should never look like advertising. If they do, the question is, “Why didn’t you just run ads on TV?” Jaguar — also owned by Ford — is promoting its X-Type sedan via a series of short films that combine live action with anime, the Japanese style of animation that has become popular the world over. Available at www.x-ingover.com, the Jaguar ads, unlike those of Mercury, never manage to look like anything but ads — slick ads, granted, but ads nonetheless.

For its new series of Net films, Amazon.com wisely went to Fallon Worldwide, the ad agency behind the BMW series. For Amazon, David Slade directed a film starring actor Blair Underwood, titled Do Geese See God?, which follows Underwood’s “Dr. Awkward” through a beat-the-clock chase through a city. Tony Scott directed another Amazon short, titled Agent Orange, a no-dialogue piece in which a carrot-topped young man seeks to connect with the orange-haired diva he saw but didn’t speak to on the subway.

FREE SPIRITS. The product tie-ins come in the end credits. Like that Panasonic plasma TV Blair Underwood is looking at? Click on the end credit and you’re taken to Amazon, where you can check it out — or better yet, buy it. It’s a straightforward approach to merchandising that isn’t annoying. The Amazon movies aren’t as good as the Mercury ones, but at least they don’t look like advertising.

Shoemaker Dr. Martens posted a series of six films on its Web site last month, produced with documentary filmmaker Doug Pray. Between Lanes is a profile of a London courier named Whylee, a man so seemingly unfit for an office that one can’t imagine him slaving away in a cubicle. “Good for him,” we can’t help saying. Another, titled John — Corner Office, profiles a bridge worker who spends his days rappelling and roping all over a suspension bridge despite the wind, cold, and rain.

The idea behind these six films is reinforcing the edgy, rebellious independent-spirit brand mood for Dr. Martens. To see the films you have to go to the company Web site, full of the usual product information. Each one is shot in black and white and has a documentary feel. Fans of Dr. Martens shoes and boots will see the films as consistent with the brand’s personality. The theme could go on endlessly, as there are, after all, interesting renegades all over the globe.

SPENDING SHIFT. Internet films turn the TV advertising paradigm on its head. Instead of spending a few hundred thousand dollars producing a slick TV ad, and then tens of millions on airtime, advertisers are spending the big bucks — in some cases millions — to produce the short films and peanuts to distribute them on the Internet. When the films are good, consumers will seek them out.

The only danger is that Net films will become as ubiquitous as TV ads. If that happens, the sheer volume would mean that not even the good ones will stand out. For now though, most Net films beat the heck out of 99% of the ads we have to endure on TV — and even stand up pretty well as short-form cinema. That’s infotainment!

from the Businessweek Online article

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