CLOSE-UP: CAMPAIGN SCREEN/ADVERTISING FORMATS - New ad formats show there is life beyond 30-second spots

Rachel Minter investigates the pros and cons of fresh formats within advertising.

If, a couple of years ago, someone had said that your straight-laced car client would blow the year's ad budget on making movies, you would have thought they'd been watching too many movies.

Yet in the past 18 months, we've seen BMW launch big-budget mini-films; Mercedes run a cinema trailer that even fooled film critics, and Audi showcase an interactive ad. With BMW now preparing to launch its second wave of Hollywood-style blockbusters, it seems that moving beyond the 30-second ad is a reality.

The next round of BMW films, through RSA, are directed by the renowned Hollywood directors Tony Scott, John Woo and Joe Carnahan. They once again feature Clive Owen in high-speed car chases amid a backdrop of baddies, bombs and big-budget special effects.

It takes guts for a company to invest in new modes of expression with little assurance of payback in terms of audience and sales. So why did BMW stick its neck out and has it worked?

In the latest issue of Campaign Screen, Jim McDowell, the head of marketing for BMW North America, says the reason was simple: the company was no longer convinced that the 30-second ad was enough to capture its audience.

"Our target audience no longer consumes traditional media in the way it used to," he adds. "Our customers are early achievers and technology is their friend. We had to ask ourselves, how can we do this in a different way?"

This quest to capture audience in new ways led McDowell to commission the much-hyped series of five short films for the internet called The Hire, directed by Hollywood film directors such as Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie, and starring A-list celebrities including Madonna.

The short films, created by Fallon Worldwide, offered everything that Hollywood provides: action, comedy, film noir, celebrity directors and spectacular special effects. Better still, for advertisers, the characters can smoke, swear and break speed limits without the restrictions imposed by broadcast watchdogs.

McDowell says: "We thought we would be lucky if one million people saw our films, but to date, more than 13 million people have seen them. From that, 2.4 million people have given us e-mail contact information and 40,000 of those people have given us permission to contact them right away. These are huge numbers for a company that aims to sell 220,000 cars, of which roughly one fifth of those cars come from customers that have identified themselves through our web effort."

Despite their success, the films hit controversy at this year's Cannes International Advertising Festival. Their execution was impeccable, but they failed to win an award in the film category, instead taking gold in the Cyber section. The jury couldn't agree on how to judge the films. Were they brilliant because of their creative polish or media effort? Were they advertising or entertainment?

Critics say it's an attempt by the advertising industry to sugar-coat brand messages, fooling viewers into forgetting that what they are watching is an ad.

Jeff Goodby, this year's Cannes jury president and the founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, says: "I have never been a big fan of sneaky, embedded advertising. It compromises the shows and films it imitates.

I like advertising to announce itself as such - then charm you into enjoying it."

His comments could apply to "Lucky Star", the latest Mercedes ad that masks itself as a cinema trailer. Created by Campbell Doyle Dye, the ad ran in the UK over the summer, posing as a new film by the acclaimed director Michael Mann and starring Benicio Del Toro.

But new methods have led to accusations that Hollywood has jumped into bed with Madison Avenue, a development which some claim threatens to destroy the balance between advertising and programming.

So what's the problem? After all, Hollywood and TV production companies have been doing it unannounced for years via product placement.

Mitch Kanner, the chairman and chief executive of The Idea Bridge, the US production company, thinks these new approaches could share many of the advantages of product placement, of which there have been several more sophisticated examples.

One example occurred in a recent episode of The West Wing, in which the chief of staff of the White House, a recovering alcoholic, eulogised about Johnnie Walker Blue.

Blurring the line between ads and entertainment doesn't come without risks. The PR could fail to generate mass interest, or viewers might not be sufficiently interested. And what if the client becomes too involved in production, now that the boundaries have changed, and content suffers?

Richard Packer is the producer of Spheriks, the football cartoon series funded by FIFA and created by HHCL & Partners. He thinks a focus on content is crucial.

"Maintain an amazing relationship with your clients so that they entrust you wholly with the production without interference," Packer says.

"We don't want it to be commercial, we want it to be a commercial film," Kanner adds.

We're still a long way from the death of the 30-second commercial, according to McDowell. But he asks: "Will it continue to command such a high proportion of our ad budget? It probably will not."

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