CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - BMW. BMW's mini movies are a step into the future of the ad break, John Tylee says

In the all-action climax to the BMW-funded mini movie Beat The Devil, the villain's vehicle spirals into the air before exploding in a blazing inferno.

The symbolism is appropriate. For the carmaker turns conventional advertising theory on its head just as dramatically as Gary Oldman's doomed set of wheels in the film, which began appearing on UK cinema screens this week.

Down the years, advertisers have tended to keep production budgets to a minimum in order to put maximum financial resource behind the delivery of their message.

Not so in BMW's case. The company has plunged a reported $10 million into the creation of three films. All are the work of leading Hollywood directors and feature big-name stars.

They can't strictly be called commercials because there's no overt branding.

Indeed, in Beat The Devil, running to coincide with the launch of the Z4, BMW's new 155-mph roadster, the car plays no more than a cameo role in a story that casts the soul singer James Brown as a modern day Faust.

By producing the films, BMW is trying to make its advertising desirable rather than intrusive. Since they began appearing on the net, they have become a talking point as surfers have downloaded them and forwarded them to friends.

Chris Thomas, the Lowe chief executive, describes them as "excellent examples of how ads no longer come to people but people come to the ads".

It's a far cry from the days when messages were kept short and simple and repeated as often as budgets enabled. But that was before spiralling media costs and digital video recorders allowed viewers to skip the ads.

Just as ominous is new research by Mark Ritson, an assistant professor of marketing at the London Business School, suggesting viewers will now do almost anything rather than watch an ad break.

"We can no longer afford to rely on repeating something until it sinks in," John Hegarty, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global creative director, says. "Advertising has to get itself talked about."

But just how well equipped agencies are to respond to such radical ways of getting under consumers' radar is open to question.

The BMW films acknowledge that people are no longer passive consumers of media. This is borne out by Big Brother's huge success based on viewer participation, and on soap storylines, which have been turned into perpetual talking points by the tabloids.

Hegarty even suggests things have changed so much that Ikea could fund a Changing Rooms-type programme with only the barest mention of its name in the credits.

"You can't hope to succeed just by filling a programme with commercial messages," Steve Henry, the HHCL/Red Cell creative chief, warns. "But there are lots of brands powerful enough to benefit from the right kind of programming."

So where does all this leave conventional TV advertising? Everybody believes there will always be a place for it, particularly while programmes such as Martin Bashir's interview with Michael Jackson deliver high ratings.

But the increasing empowerment of viewers to interact with commercials must be recognised and exploited.

As Henry puts it: "Boring and patronising advertising just won't work any more."

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