NEW YORK (Reuters) - When the manager of a coin-operated laundry
seduces a mother and daughter and convinces them to skip town, there's
bound to be trouble, or perhaps a movie plot.
In this case, the story is part of an intricate set of short Internet
films improbably designed to attract viewers to a new model of Mercury
Advertisers are devoting larger budgets to these Web hybrids of
entertainment and marketing, hoping to convince consumers they offer
not just a product, but also the elusive element of cool.
The financial payoff of Internet films, sometimes called Webisodes,
may be just as hard to pin down, even as marketers recruit top
celebrities and moviemaking talent for the job.
"These have really been about brand experiences and are not
necessarily campaigns that would do well by direct marketing
standards," said Gregg Spiridellis of JibJab studios
(http://www.jibjab.com), which creates online animation. "I haven't
seen a campaign where there is really compelling content ... that
secondarily drives a purchase."
JibJab won national fame with its "This Land" spoof on U.S.
presidential elections earlier this year. Viewers called up the film
and its sequel 80 million times, according to the company, which has
also worked on brand campaigns for Sony and Kraft.
Spiridellis said Webisodes often work best by intriguing key consumer
groups -- some of them influential in passing on a good word about a
product -- rather than reaching the widest audience in the traditional
model of television commercials.
"TV will remain an important medium, but there are times when it's not
appropriate, so you need other options," said David Lubars, chief
creative officer at ad agency BBDO.
Lubars was behind a series of short action films for BMW luxury cars
three years ago during his tenure at the Fallon agency. In the films
(http://www.bmwfilms.com), actor Clive Owen plays a deft driver
escaping tricky situations in a BMW, and many consider them the gold
standard of Web ads.
Mercury's "Meet the Lucky Ones" is a new effort to excite heavy
Internet users about a brand. The film is aimed at 20- to 30-year-olds
who are spending more time on the Web than other media.
In five weekly episodes that began Nov. 1, viewers follow the
destinies of 10 interrelated characters and choose the order in which
the story is told. The site gives details on Mercury cars, but the
company's Mariner model only appears briefly in the films.
"The customer asks to get involved ... and the obligation is to create
stimulating content that allows them to come back and back again,"
said Jeff Grice, director of digital marketing at Wunderman Detroit,
the ad agency that created the campaign.
Mercury said its short films significantly raised traffic to its site,
with more than 1 million visitors in the last month who also spent
more time exploring its other contents.
Online retailer Amazon.com loaded its home page
(http://www.amazon.com) with short films starring movie and television
celebrities like Minnie Driver and Chris Noth, turning one of the most
expensive Internet properties into a home theater during the holiday
In previous years, Amazon would use its coveted home page to spotlight
products as gift ideas. "Amazon Theater," also designed by BBDO's
Lubars, makes no direct plug, but end credits list products seen in
the film and where to find them.
"We made an investment in thanking our customers and also helping
customers discover great content and products," said Kathy Savitt, a
vice president at Amazon. Several million viewers clicked on the films
in the first two weeks, she said.
Other ventures featured comedian Jerry Seinfeld and cartoon hero
Superman in vignettes promoting American Express, while Jaguar created
a part-animation auto adventure (http://www.x-ingover.com).
U.S. advertisers spent $5.6 billion on Internet ads in the first
nine months of 2004, according to research firm TNS Media
Intelligence/CMR. Internet films are not yet tracked, but executives
involved in such projects say their production and promotion expenses
can equal those of traditional TV spots.
Lubars said ad agencies are gaining the special expertise needed to
make Web films work: a combination of Hollywood-style scripting and
marketing know-how. Just as important is creating a film that fits a
"It's got to be stuff you can see in a small box," he said. "And it
can't be too long. The longer it has to go through the pipes, it
becomes a glitchy, unpleasant experience."
Others say the medium must evolve as its novelty fades.
"Long-term, the idea of driving consumers to a special site to see a
video ad isn't the best strategy," said JupiterResearch analyst Nate
Elliott. "You want to go where the consumers are ... drop it into a
piece of video content online that people are going to see at ESPN or
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