Nissan Motor is planting actors in movie theaters to perform live commercials before the start of showings of "The Matrix Revolutions" in an effort to expose jaded, skeptical consumers to advertising by masking it as something else.
The brief in-person pitches feature actors scattered among the ticket-buying audience who stand and deliver lines that evoke the words spoken by poets at events known as slams or jams. Their performances are timed to accompany a commercial the audience sees on the movie screen, which begins without identifying the sponsor but concludes with the Nissan Altima logo.
The campaign by the Nissan North America division of Nissan Motor, intended to pique the curiosity of younger consumers about the Nissan Altima sedan, began yesterday in theaters operated by the Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corporation in seven large markets and is scheduled to continue through tomorrow.
The effort, by the Los Angeles office of an agency named True, is part of a larger initiative for the Altima carrying the theme "Who are you?" which is intended to appeal to a young, urban and multicultural swath of the public. It is part of a booming trend labeled underground or experiential advertising, which tries to promote word of mouth or buzz about brands.
Such nontraditional methods of peddling products range from Sony Ericsson's hiring actors to pretend to be tourists who ask passers-by to photograph them with new camera phones to Viacom's teaming up with Holiday Inn to open a Nickelodeon Family Suites Hotel in Florida.
Nissan's "theater jam" campaign is "an intelligent risk in the business of trying to create attention, which is something you have to do," said Jonathan Cropper, senior manager for youth and urban communications at Nissan North America in Gardena, Calif. "If you get comfortable doing things the same old way, it becomes an impediment."
The campaign, with an undisclosed budget, is likely to intensify concerns among critics who abhor the encroachment of advertising into public areas like movie theaters as well as those who are worried by the increased blurring of the lines between entertainment and marketing.
"The moviegoing experience is turning more and more into an infomercial experience," said Gary Ruskin, executive director for Commercial Alert in Portland, Ore., an organization that fights what its members consider to be the creeping commercialization of American culture. "Moviegoers don't plunk down $8 or $10 to get hammered by ads."
After listening to a description of the Nissan campaign, Susan Nunziata, executive editor of Entertainment Marketing Letter in New York, an industry newsletter published by EPM Communications, said she had mixed feelings about it.
The idea of "melding an onscreen ad with live interaction is clever," Ms. Nunziata said, but "it's hard to say how it's going to be received."
While the younger male moviegoers who would want to be among the first to see "The Matrix Revolutions" could "potentially be more receptive to something like this that's a little different," she added, "there's a line you cross if people feel you're putting one over on them."
In other words, the question is whether moviegoers will say "Whoa," as in the exclamation uttered by Neo (Keanu Reeves) in "The Matrix," or "Whoa," as in stop this silly charade.
"It sounds pretty smart, but it's a leap of faith," said Drew Neisser, president and chief executive at the Renegade Marketing Group in New York, an agency specializing in nontraditional marketing that is owned by Dentsu.
"The rules of engagement for this type of thing say that if the consumers feel there's value in the stunt - that it's entertaining, worth their while - they won't begrudge it," Mr. Neisser said. "But if they feel they aren't entertained, that it's too much like commercial TV, it will fall flat."
Mr. Cropper of Nissan North America and Christopher Davis, executive creative director at True, said the campaign was tested at a movie theater in Santa Monica, Calif., to determine if audience members who sat through the live commercials would complain about being fooled or would be annoyed.
Based on the test results, Mr. Davis predicted that the theatergoers this week "will be a little shocked at first, but then their reaction will be one of curiosity and then, 'Hey, that was pretty cool.' "
"We made sure the work would not be intrusive," he added. "We're not driving a car down the aisle."
Theater Jam will be presented to patrons of Loews Cineplex theaters in the Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington markets. Loews Cineplex agreed to accept the campaign after other theater chains turned it down.
"We love the level of creativity being put into this," said Syrinthia Studer, vice president for marketing partnerships and promotions at Loews Cineplex in New York, "and we don't see this having any negative impact on the operation of the theaters."
"We're approaching this as a test and looking to get some learning from it," she added, because while live commercials have been presented in movie theaters overseas they are uncommon in this country. The onscreen commercial that accompanies the actors was sold through Screenvision, the theater advertising company, as part of its regular package of spots that run before the coming attractions that precede each showing of "The Matrix Revolutions."
Mr. Neisser of the Renegade Marketing Group said he had one qualm about the campaign: "It takes so long for the movie to start."
Posted on aef.com: November 10, 2003
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. November 6, 2003
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