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Movie Marketers Turn to Subtle, Sophisticated Tactics


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Now that digital recorders let TV viewers skip the commercials and many Internet users skip television entirely, advertisers are looking for more creative ways to sell their products. And that also applies to the selling of movies. With the glut of films seeking attention, studios have tried subtle ways to slip movies into the public's consciousness. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

If you're watching a show like "The Apprentice" or "Survivor" and you see the contestants drink a certain soda or use a particular cell phone, you probably know those products are not appearing by chance, that the use of those products is a form of advertising. But if you happen to be watching the ABC sitcom "My Wife and Kids," you might not suspect that dialogue in the show could be there to sell a movie.

(Soundbite of "My Wife and Kids")

Unidentified Woman: Everybody loves "E.T." They're even putting it back into theaters.

Unidentified Child: I don't care.

Unidentified Teen: Mom, let me handle this. You know who's in this movie, too?

Unidentified Child: Who?

Unidentified Teen: The girl from "Charlie's Angels," the one with red hair and brown roots, Drew Barrymore.

Unidentified Child: The one who throws and kicks?

Unidentified Teen: Yeah, your favorite.

Unidentified Child: Why didn't you say so?

MASTERS: When Universal Pictures was looking for ways to promote the 2002 rerelease of "E.T.," the studio bought part of the plot of that episode. One of the series writers, Janis Hirsch, says the star of the show wasn't pleased and insisted that the promotion be relegated to a subplot.

Ms. JANIS HIRSCH (Screenwriter): Damon Wayans, to his credit, said, `It will be a B story and I will not be in it.'

MASTERS: The television audience had no way of knowing that the show was, in effect, also a commercial. But Universal marketing president Adam Fogelson says that kind of product placement is a fixture in today's world.

Mr. ADAM FOGELSON (Universal Pictures Marketing President): The truth is when you're watching any television program on today and ask, `Well, that car, is that car that that character is driving, is that car there because the director of that show said it has to be that car? Is that car there because that car company has a special, important relationship with that company? Is that toothpaste, is that building, is that anything?' That's part of the culture that we're living in today.

MASTERS: That worries Gary Ruskin. He's with Commercial Alert, an organization that is asking the federal government, so far without any success, to require broadcasters to run an on-screen disclosure when advertising is embedded in programming.

Mr. GARY RUSKIN (Commercial Alert): It's stealth advertising. It's inherently deceptive because many people don't realize that the ads are ads, and so disclosure rectifies that problem.

MASTERS: Ruskin says below-the-radar advertising is intended to slip past the critical faculties of viewers. That's troubling, he says, but what's worse is that much of this advertising is aimed at kids, who frequently aren't able to filter out such embedded messages. And in Universal's case, much of the advertising is so below the radar that even the smartest grown-up would have trouble identifying it. But Universal's Fogelson says it's necessary for studios to get creative to compete.

Mr. FOGELSON: There are so many movies being made and so much money being spent to market them that distinguishing your product from all the other product out there I think has become more and more complicated.

MASTERS: Universal and other studios often use another vehicle that consumers might not perceive as a form of advertising--the TV documentary. Take "The Mummy," a summer hit that starred Brendan Fraser. The Discovery Channel hosted an evening of three mummy-themed documentaries. Universal provided clips from the movie that ran in between the shows and star Brendan Fraser acted as host. He also narrated one of the programs, "Mummies: The Real Story."

(Soundbite of "Mummies: The Real Story")

Mr. BRENDAN FRASER (Actor): The ancient Egyptians believed you could take it with you. All the earthly pleasures could be enjoyed in the afterlife.

MASTERS: Discovery spokeswoman Catherine Frymark says such movie tie-ins provide an opportunity to educate viewers. Given the movie-related material that aired that evening, she says, it should have been apparent to the audience that Universal compensated Discovery for airing the programming. She also says that Discovery never yields control over the content of its shows.

Is it really possible that a small audience for a Discovery program could affect the success of a big Hollywood movie? That can't be quantified, but Universal's Fogelson says the objective is to get into the zeitgeist, to make a movie seem topical and even cool. These television documentaries might be made by independent producers, but sometimes, Fogelson says, they're financed and produced by Universal.

Mr. FOGELSON: And I suppose there'd be no easier obvious way to tell which it is by watching the program, which is, I think, part of the intention.

MASTERS: Universal's below-the-radar strategies have gone beyond the realm of television. Think back to all those big-screen adventures in "Jurassic Park."

(Soundbite of "Jurassic Park")

Unidentified Man #1: What was that?

Unidentified Man #2: That's a Tyrannosaurus.

Unidentified Man #1: I don't think so. It sounds bigger.

MASTERS: Working with a paleontologist, the studio has arranged to have news about real-life dinosaur discoveries coincide with the release of each "Jurassic Park" film. Jack Horner is curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in 1986 and he's been a consultant on all three "Jurassic Park" movies. Just before the third movie was released, Horner announced the discovery of what might have been the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, maybe bigger than Sue, the current record-holder. You can see Horner talking about this discovery on the DVD for "Jurassic Park III."

(Soundbite of "Jurassic Park III" DVD)

Mr. JACK HORNER (Paleontologist): Today we were doing something very exciting. We were actually taking out the largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found...

MASTERS: But in fact, Horner acknowledges that the T. rex was found several weeks earlier than he said it was. Universal came up with the idea of asking Horner to fudge the date so the discovery could happen closer to the release of "Jurassic Park III." Horner says that was OK with him.

Mr. HORNER: We decided that we could alter discovery dates, at least for the press, for the opening of the movie.

MASTERS: Universal sent a press release about the discovery, with video footage, to news organizations. Horner says he was happy to accommodate the studio's request because Universal has been paying for a good part of Horner's work.

Mr. HORNER: It was a nice tidy sum, and allowed us to do a lot of things we wouldn't normally have been able to do. So sitting on a little media hype for a short period of time certainly was within reason as far as I'm concerned.

MASTERS: And Horner doesn't think that altering the date affects the science. That would have been the case if he had published the incorrect date in a peer reviewed journal, he says. But he didn't do that. What appeared in the popular press he believes to be meaningless.

Mr. HORNER: You know, you can go to the press with anything and they'll publish it.

MASTERS: Fudging the date was irrelevant, Horner continues, in part because the discovery of what was presented as the world's biggest T. rex was somewhat hyped in the first place.

Mr. HORNER: Sixth-graders like it a lot because it's--you know, they like big. But scientifically speaking, it's not that important.

MASTERS: In fact, Horner has helped the studio come up with discoveries for each of the "Jurassic Park" movies. Universal marketing executive Fogelson.

Mr. FOGELSON: Are there dinosaurs out there that are about to be discovered all the time? Yes. Do we make sure that one gets discovered at around the time of a "Jurassic Park" movie? Well, you know what? We've had three "Jurassic Park" movies. I believe we've discovered a new dinosaur with each of those three movies, and I can tell you if there's a fourth, we probably will discover another one.

MASTERS: Thomas Holtz is a T. rex expert at the University of Maryland. He says Horner has done world-class work. He agrees with Horner that the discovery of the potentially biggest T. rex didn't make much of an impression in the scientific community. In fact, that claim has never been verified because Horner never did publish the data in an academic journal. Even if he did, Holtz says, the date of discovery wouldn't be a critical piece of information. But Holtz says altering that date in a press release seems weird.

Mr. THOMAS HOLTZ (University of Maryland): We're in the business of presenting observations and facts, and although it's a trivial fact, you know, once you start doing that, who knows what else will follow? I hope nothing worse, but--and I honestly, I have to say I don't see what advantage it gives them, either.

MASTERS: Gary Ruskin from Commercial Alert says Horner's action strikes him as a sad example of the commercialization of science.

Mr. RUSKIN: It's not the proper role of paleontology to hawk movies. The proper role of paleontology is to tell us about dinosaurs.

MASTERS: Universal's Fogelson says the public has made it clear when it feels that the industry has gone too far. A few years ago, there was a brouhaha when it became known that studios were posting movie plugs anonymously on the Internet. That practice, Fogelson says, has stopped.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.