Imagine a world in which your straight-laced car client announces that the year's ad budget will be blown on making movies. Well, if industry predictions come true, and as technology progresses, that may happen more and more. In place of the 30-second spot,we will see the commercial quick flick or client-sponsored content.
But it still requires plenty of digging, particularly in the UK, to find a list of concrete examples of where this is actually happening. It also takes a lot of guts for a brand to plough fortunes into new modes of expression with little assurance of payback in terms of audience and sales. So what's in it for the client, and where are the examples?
In the case of BMW, Jim McDowell, head of marketing for BMW North America, the company was no longer convinced that the 30-second ad was sufficient to ensnare its audience.
"Our target audience no longer consumes traditional media in the way it used to. Our customers are early achievers and technology is their friend. We had to ask ourselves, how can we do this in a different way?" he says.
Mitch Kanner, chairman and chief executive of US production company, The Idea Bridge, agrees: "With PVR and Tivo, consumers can create their own programming schedule and choose what to watch and when. The real question is how do you integrate your brand personality and values into more interesting content that gets seen?"
This quest to capture audience in new and inventive ways led McDowell to commission a much-hyped series of five short films called The Hire, shot by Oscar-winning film directors such as Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie, and starring A-list celebrities including Madonna.
The short films, by ad agency, Fallon Worldwide, offer all that Hollywood does best; action, comedy, film noir, celebrity directors and big-budget special effects. Better still for advertisers, the characters can smoke, swear and break speed limits without the restrictions imposed by broadcast watchdogs such as the Independent Television Commission.
According to McDowell, more than three million viewers downloaded the first three films from the web. The series generated universal interest, not only from consumers, but from the ad industry, who lauded the new formats as pioneering, brave attempts to steer advertising in a new direction.
Despite their success, the films were received under a cloud of controversy at this year's Cannes Lions Advertising festival. The beautifully executed shorts failed to win in the film category but took gold in the Cyber section. The jury couldn't agree on how the films should be judged. Were they brilliant because of their creative polish or media effort? Were they advertising or entertainment?
Critics of this approach argue that it's an attempt by the advertising industry to sugar-coat their brand messages, fooling viewers into forgetting that what they are watching is an ad.
Jeff Goodby, jury president and founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, agrees. " I have never been a big fan of sneaky, embedded advertising," he says. "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 ad agency, Campbell Doyle Dye, the ad ran in cinemas across the UK last month, posing as a trailer for a film by acclaimed director, Michael Mann, (Insider and Ali) starring Benicio Del Toro.
In reality, there was no film to promote. Lucky Star is an ad for the Mercedes SL, the open-top sports car that Del Toro drives into the sunset. It certainly conned cinema goers and movie critics, including London listings guide Time Out, who all anticipated the launch of a new blockbuster.
But the ad was a huge success, generating column inches and admired by ad land for its sheer guts and cunning strategy.
But it also brought the accusation that Hollywood has jumped into bed with Madison Avenue, a development that 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 working with advertisers unannounced for years via product placement.
Kanner, a strong supporter of experimental ad formats, thinks this new approach could share many of the advantages of product placement. "In Men in Black, for example, the sunglasses were part of the character's uniform. Will Smith was even quoted in the film as saying: 'I make these sunglasses look good.' And the Fed Ex relationship in Castaway was so powerful that, whether you liked the film or not, you came away feeling you had a relationship with Fed Ex," says Kanner.
But can the short film or other experimental ad formats survive without significant PR efforts to woo the press? The PR elements of both the Mercedes and BMW campaigns were intrinsic to securing their success. "When you see the trailer, then read about it in the newspaper, you want to go back and watch the ad," said one industry observer on Mercedes.
That said, BMW still needed to use traditional cinema, print and TV advertising to draw its crowds to the car site to watch films.
Blurring the line between ads and entertainment doesn't come without risks. There's always the outside chance that the PR push may fail to generate mass interest, or that viewers are not sufficiently interested in the film. And what if the client becomes too involved in production, now that the boundaries have changed, and content suffers?
Richard Packer, the producer of Spheriks, the football cartoon series funded by FIFA and created by HHCL, advises that the most important thing to remember is to focus on fantastic content: "Detach yourself from advertising and maintain an amazing relationship with your client so that they entrust you wholly with the production without interference," he says.
Whatever the format, content must be viewed first and foremost as entertainment, "whether it's accepted by the Hollywood community or not. We don't want it to be commercial, we want it to be a commercial film," adds Kanner.
Risks taken into account, there is a huge demand from clients to see something other than 30-second spots. McDowell was so happy with the response to The Hire series that BMW is about to launch its second season of films. These will be directed by Tony Scott, (Top Gun, True Romance), John Woo (Mission Impossible 11) and Joe Carnahan.
"The 30-second ad is going to be with us for some time to come, but will it continue to command such a high proportion of our ad budget? It probably will not," concludes McDowell.
If clients want more exciting, sexy alternatives that will liberate advertising from the limitations of the short ad-break, then that's what they will get.