OPINION: Mills on ... BMW

It's easy to see how the industry's latest obsession - disguising advertising as content - has come about. Mix and match any one of the following trends 1) ad avoidance, 2) ad clutter, 3) media fragmentation and 4) PVRs and you're well on the way to persuading the client that an ad that doesn't look like an ad is to die for.

Naturally, the ad boys love it too because they can pretend to be "creatively" creative - especially if there's a bit of Hollywood in there - as opposed to creative in a commercial purpose. And the media boys love it too because they can claim to have devised some brilliantly innovative media strategy. "Golds all round!" they think.

The example that seems to have set all the hares running came in 2000 when Fallon commissioned a series of well-known directors to make a series of mini-films for BMW and ran them only on the internet, thus generating mass word-of-mouth buzz among the media chatterati and mass admiration from the industry cognoscenti - some of them the same people. Needless to say, the ads scooped loads of awards and so it's hardly surprising that since then, the idea has taken off. Everybody, but everybody, wants some of that buzz. Last summer, Mercedes pulled off a similar trick with Lucky Star, an ad disguised as a trailer for a spoof film directed by Michael Mann and starring Benicio del Toro. Now BMW and Fallon are at it again, this time with new mini-films to support the launch of the Z4 and an added media twist - running one of them, Beat the Devil, as a ten-minute short in cinemas before the main film. This one, directed by Tony "Top Gun" Scott - stars James Brown (the singer, not the journalist), Clive Owen, Gary Oldman and Marilyn Manson.

But do you know what, all this stuff about subverting accepted norms, about - to use a buzz word - embedded sales messages, about what is an ad and what is content, is beginning to leave me cold. It's boring and, let's face it, in danger of disappearing up its own arse. Let's take Beat the Devil, where the story hangs by its fingernails from the paper-thin plotline of a Faustian pact between a singer (Brown) and the Devil (Oldman), who now lives in Las Vegas. Brown wants to nullify the deal; Oldman challenges him to a winner-takes-all drag race along the Vegas strip. Er, right.

Guess who's in the BMW? And guess who wins? Talk about vacuous tosh.

Not, when I saw it last weekend, that the audience either noticed or cared. The full "film" - it may have been ten minutes, but it felt like an hour - ran before the ads (the normal ones) and the trailers. The lights were half on, and the audience was shuffling in. Even if you were interested, it was hard to keep up with the story. One conversation near me went like this: "What's this all about then?" To which the reply came: "Dunno.

Where's the popcorn? Did you text Mel about going to McCluskey's after?" But let's say you were interested and watched all the way through. Would you have figured out what it was? I don't think so. The only clue was a single line in the credits to the effect of: "BMW would like to assure viewers that safety belts were used in the making of this film", which is so pretentious it hurts to repeat.

How did it all go wrong? Well, my guess is that, in pursuit of their own agendas, each party fell so in love with the idea that they forgot the reality, which is that Beat the Devil was neither good enough to pass itself off as content, nor overt enough to advertise anything. And that will always be the problem with advertising as content, because if you get one bit right, you get the other wrong. Just ask the audience.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Juries love this kind of stuff.

File under ... D for diabolical.

What would the chairman's wife say? "I guess this is what Hollywood

would call 'low concept'."