They've been seen on pregnant bellies and tattooed on foreheads. They've invaded bathroom stalls, cell phones and doctors' offices. They've sneaked their way into movies, TV shows, novels and even Broadway plays.
They are ads and, come September, they'll be more maddeningly ubiquitous than ever.
In the fall, a laser-imprinted CBS eye logo and slogan will appear on eggs in major markets as the network launches 35 million "egg-vertisements" to generate publicity for its fall television lineup. Look for ads to start appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And superhero lovers will likely see more product placement inside the pages of Marvel and DC Comics by year's end.
These companies are among those using any means necessary in the hyper-frantic global battle to grab consumer attention and dollars. With more than $270 billion spent on ads in the United States alone last year -- and about $570 billion worldwide -- experts say there's very little ground left that advertisers haven't already conquered.
"It's hard to imagine where advertising doesn't appear nowadays," said Erik Gordon, a Johns Hopkins University marketing professor. "You can make an argument that the whole world has become an ad. Nothing is sacred anymore. It even appears in my dreams -- my bad dreams."
Advertising in dreams doesn't seem so far-fetched considering the lengths and depths to which companies have gone to call attention to a product. Billboards have gotten bigger. Television commercials have gotten louder, brighter, edgier and more manic. Advertising companies increasingly push the boundaries, whether selling by shock like Volkswagen's car crash ads or sex like Unilever's Axe body spray spots, which often show an Axe-sprayed man being mobbed by women.
As advertising in newspapers, TV and magazines fell short of reaching target audiences such as teenagers, experts say, the quest to reach consumers became more innovative and, some might argue, invasive.
While some methods were obvious (product placement of brand names in TV shows and movies, for example), others were sneaky, such as buzz marketing campaigns that hire hundreds of people to talk up a particular product.
In the case of ads on eggs, CBS applied a new technology to age-old marketing concepts. The network teamed up with EggFusion in Illinois, sponsoring the company's laser-coded expiration dates on eggs sold by grocers. The eggs will include slogans such as "Crack the Case on CBS" for its hit show
Big or small, aimed at young or old, in-your-face or more subtle, ads appear inescapable.
These days, ad space is sold by the pixel, the tiny dots of light and color on a computer screen, and in video games such as Microsoft Xbox Live's Project Gotham Racing 3, which showcases Cadillac.
People sell ad space on various body parts, such as the woman in Utah who tattooed GoldenPalace.com on her forehead last year for $10,000. The gambling site also paid a Connecticut woman $15,500 to name her newborn daughter Golden Palace Benedetto.
"The problem that we, as advertisers, have is breaking through the clutter," said Mark Levit, managing partner at Partners & Levit Inc., an advertising agency in New York. "There is so much advertising on so many different media that we constantly seek to find new ways to deliver our messages. It's a challenge."
Such is the challenge that even so-called new advertising news seems old. This month, US Airways plans to sell ad space on its air sickness bags. Virgin Atlantic covered that queasy area last year when it stocked flights with 100,000 "Star Wars"-themed air sickness bags.
Marvel and DC Comics have signed lucrative deals with heavy-hitters like General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac, Nike Inc. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge to either develop story lines around specific products or weave more brand names into scenes.
The Wall Street Journal's foray into front-page ads in September to boost its bottom line isn't new. The Journal ran front-page ads from the first day of publication in 1889 until March 29, 1946. More recently, USA Today and the Financial Times have done the same.
"There's no history that says the front page is sacred," said Philip Meyer, a newspaper analyst and author of "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age." "With that said, you hate to see it because you're yielding news values to the accounting house. There's so much noise that advertisers will pay a premium to get it into an unexpected place."
In the Journal's case, that's 1.75 million mostly affluent subscribers who will see those ads. Meyer believes the practice will help "slow the decline" in advertising revenue at papers. Others including the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune have either already started or announced they will start running ads on the fronts of certain sections.
"Consumers have become increasingly cynical and increasingly willing to find ways to tune out advertising through technology," said Ken Bernhardt, professor of marketing at the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "The goal for many marketers is to get their product into the consideration set of alternatives that consumers evaluate when they make a purchase.
"Challenge 1 is to get the consumer aware," Bernhardt said. "Challenge 2 is to get them to consider it. Challenge 3 is getting them to try it for the first time. And then, hopefully, they'll like it enough to repeat buy. It's increasingly hard to get into the awareness set."
The difficulty in getting a message noticed might explain why once-sacred places such as home, church and schools aren't so much any more, says Bruce Vanden Bergh, a professor of advertising at Michigan State University.
"Everyone's trying to catch you under the radar," Vanden Bergh said. "They're trying to catch you where you least expect it. With the advent of the Internet and the continuing need for brands to establish and maintain a presence, people will continue to try to place things on odd things and odd places.
"People may get irritated and frustrated," he said. "People may think it's crass, but we are a consumer culture."
Consider all the areas once considered sacrosanct. Schools? Cash-starved school districts have turned school buses into rolling advertisements. Home? An Atlanta house was painted bright pink and decorated with an E Channel and "The Simple Life" logos to promote the reality show. Church? Many church programs have included ads for years and new megachurches are often built with a Starbucks and McDonald's. Funerals? The growing trend toward personalizing the rites of the dying has brought us Harley-Davidson-themed memorials and caskets designed in homage to favorite beers and sports teams.
Could sleep be the next frontier?
New York research firm eMarketer thought so when it duped many industry types on April Fool's Day into falling for a report about a new technology that implants nanobots in the brain to stimulate ads while you dream. It even forecast that in-sleep ads will be a $3.3 billion market by 2010.
It's probably only a matter of time, Johns Hopkins marketing professor Gordon said, before "someone will figure out how to wirelessly beam advertisements directly into our heads someday while we are sleeping."
Dan Thanh Dang, San Francisco Chronicle. August 6, 2006
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