What do Superman, a shock talk radio host and a giant chicken in garters have in common?
All three star in a new wave of Internet ad campaigns hawking everything from fast food to razors.
After years of relying on conventional banner ads and showy Web pages driven by the latest technology, ad agencies are working to create branded content consumers want to watch — and hopefully pass on to their friends.
"We had sort of lost focus on the content and the concepts behind the sites. Now I feel like we're at the beginning of a Renaissance," said Jeff Benjamin, interactive creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
The Miami ad agency, controlled by Toronto-based MDC Partners Inc., launched a bizarre but intriguing Web site last month to promote Burger King's Tendercrisp chicken sandwich.
The site (www.subservientchicken.com) shows a sparse, windowless apartment where a person dressed as a chicken will do whatever is asked. Type "jump," "fly" or "lay an egg" and the chicken will attempt to do it, as if in real time.
The week after it launched, the site received visits from about 407,000 computers, according to tracking firm Nielsen/NetRatings.
Advertisers are focusing more of their creative resources on Internet advertising for several reasons. While consumers are using digital video recorders to skip television ads they don't like, they're using the Internet to tune into spots they want to see. They are more likely to be interested in the product being advertised and will spend more time watching.
Often they do this through "webisodes" — Internet infomercials that give some thought to entertainment value.
The season finale of Close Shaves, an eight-webisode series sponsored by Schick Canada, "aired" last week.
Each episode features Peter (Pistol Pete) Madigan, the cartoon host of a radio show for guys, who rants for one to two minutes on such topics as why he hates golf, and why facial hair makes people look like they eat out of garbage cans.
Although Schick's logo surrounds the programming, some webisodes don't even mention the Quattro, the four-blade razor that Schick is trying to promote.
"When you do branded content on the Internet, you build a relationship with your viewer. If you tip the scale too far in the direction of pure shill, people will click off," said David Sylvestre, creative director of Toronto-based Unplugged TV, the Internet television station that produced Close Shaves.
Not to say there aren't webisodes of Close Shaves where entertainment clearly comes second to product. In one segment, Pistol Pete wears a Schick Quattro t-shirt and talks approvingly about how the company is using girls on Harleys to promote its product. In another, he asks a woman to shave her name in her "fur-bearing monkey man" boyfriend's hairy back with a Quattro razor.
James MacIntosh, director of marketing for Schick Canada, said that because his product has less brand awareness than Gillette, the product needs to be edgier to stand out.
"We're the little guy and we have to try to do something unique to try to break through. This seems to be one of those things," Mr. MacIntosh said.
Gillette, by comparison, is going big. Last week, it signed soccer superstar David Beckham to an exclusive three-year marketing agreement, estimated to be worth $10-million (U.S).
Schick says it has already surpassed its modest goal — to attract 30,000 unique visitor to the site. The webisodes appear in "reruns" at www.closeshaves.ca until the end of September. A new "season" of Pistol Pete shows is in development for the fall, which could run in conjunction with Schick or other sponsors.
The 30,000 viewers pales in comparison to the viewership for a prime-time television program. A record 5.7 million Canadians were expected to tune in for the final episode of Friends.
But Mr. MacIntosh said that unlike TV viewers — who could grab a snack or flip channels during commercial breaks — those watching branded content on the Internet are tuning in specifically for the ads. He said the average visitor spends more than four minutes on the site.
"It's a totally different experience when you're sitting at your computer watching a show," he said.
Observers expect webisodes to surge in popularity with the increase in homes with high-speed Internet service.
Broadcasting on the Internet is certainly cheaper than buying time on television.
It also allows ad agencies to push the limits of what is acceptable in advertising. And advertisers have discovered that the most unexpected — and raciest ads — are the ones that are most likely to "go viral" and get passed on to friends.
In one of the best examples, Trojan created a series of Web-only ads in which various Olympic sports were represented as sexual events.
But other advertisers have landed in trouble for trying to stretch the boundaries of good taste. Ford created a British viral campaign designed to position its SportKa car as the "evil twin" to its subcompact Ka car.
One ad was released last year in which the mischievous car opened its hood to swat a pigeon. That spot was considered just risqué enough for Ford.
But a few weeks ago, another ad, which Ford had rejected outright, was leaked and spread like wildfire over the Internet. Ford and its ad agency were both forced to distance themselves from the controversial spot, in which a computer-generated cat is graphically decapitated in the SportKa's sunroof.
Internet advertising is not always about cutting costs or stretching the boundaries of good taste.
In what is likely the most expensive example of branded Internet content, American Express has produced two five-minute segments that feature Jerry Seinfeld and an animated Superman. The spots were directed by Barry Levinson, who won an Oscar for directing Rain Man.
Unplugged TV, which created the Schick ads, was also responsible for the animated portion of the American Express spots, which run at www.americanexpress.com.
The first Amex webisode actually made the transition to television and was watched by an estimated 7.3 million Americans when NBC re-aired the finale episode of Friends.
In what may have been a television first, NBC actually ran ads for the ads trumpeting: "For one night only, Jerry Seinfeld is back!"
Crispin Porter + Bogusky recently launched a U.S. campaign that co-ordinated branded content in both print and the Internet — neither of which was identified as advertising — for the sponsor Mini Cooper. The ads are designed as a debate over whether or not a British scientist has built robots out of Mini car parts.
"I think the really great campaigns of the future will be ones where you've got some content on TV, some content on print and some content on-line. And none of them put it all together. You're putting it together. It's almost like you're solving a mystery," the firm's Mr. Benjamin said.
Keith McArthur, GlobeandMail.com. June 4, 2004.
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