Sellout or smart marketing?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Madonna's never been one to shy away from self-promotion, but until now she hasn't taken on the role of pitchwoman for any product other than her own - at least in the US.

Though she puckered her lips for a European Max Factor campaign in 1999, she's going even further this time by getting into the cross-promotional groove at home. Following in the footsteps of countless celebrity endorsers, the singer/actress is appearing in Gap clothing ads, vamping it up in customized corduroys and diamonds while singing "Hollywood" from her "American Life" album.

So Madonna lets Gap use her to boost its brand image among the boomer demographic, and in return, she gets to remind the viewing public that she's still a hot mama. Forget the almost de rigueur practice of accepting concert tour support from companies trying to promote their brands. This arrangement reaches audiences that would never consider spending more than $100 a pop for one of her shows.

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Ideally, the exposure will help Madonna's album sell more units, and the Gap will sell truckloads of very uncustomized cords. The chain, which includes GapKids and BabyGap, also may market her upcoming children's book, "The English Roses." Oh, and she gets a few million dollars up front, too.

Whether you view Madonna's deal as a sellout or as a smart marketing move, the fact is, cross-promotion is getting more prevalent - and more creative. And more accepted, depending on the circumstances. Some artists are actively seeking such deals, knowing full well that they can no longer depend on radio for exposure - or on heavy promotional support from their record labels. (In Madonna's case, even though Maverick is her own label, her days of instant chart conquests seem to be over.)

Getting beyond the realm of commercials - into the "value-added advertising" arenas of TV programs, films, or video games - is even better because consumers choose those forms of entertainment. Unlike commercials, the message won't be skipped or TiVo'ed away with the touch of a remote-control button. Better yet is "brand integration," when the product becomes part of the plot (think BMW Minis in the film "The Italian Job").

"It's whatever exposure they can get and whatever association and ... inescapable situation they can create," says Matt McAllister, a Virginia Tech professor and author of "The Commercialization of American Culture."

Jeff Greenfield of 1st Approach, a strategic marketing company in Boston, counters, "The consumer is bombarded by a thousand times more messages than they ever were. They're so distracted ... that you need this multidisciplinary approach."

Despite the fact that Eric Clapton re-recorded "After Midnight" for Michelob 18 years ago, some rock and pop artists are still chided for pursuing back-scratching marketing methods - and the reason has to do with that aforementioned "s" word.

Artists like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and David Gray earn extra - and well-deserved - respect for steadfastly refusing to make cross-marketing deals because they believe it will compromise their art.

But Adam Duritz, the dreadlocked frontman of alterna-pop band Counting Crows, defended his band's decision to do a Coca-Cola commercial by telling RollingStone.com: "At a time when radio is playing so few songs, and MTV plays so few songs, you can't count on them to promote you.... We don't make a lot of money, but it's a huge promotion for your record."

Any band worth its tour bus knows alternative marketing is essential, and promotion by an advertiser is a no-brainer way to get extra exposure. It's particularly useful if you've been out of the mainstream for a while and want to get back in.

Steve Harwell, lead singer of the rock band Smash Mouth ("Walkin' on the Sun," "All Star"), embraces the concept of cross-promotion for building or maintaining awareness of the band's existence. "We market ourselves a lot. So if you are not, like, in the public eye, at least you're still out there," he says.

Smash Mouth and Jeep parent company DaimlerChrysler have made a deal similar to Madonna's, though without the cash payout and without the apparent incongruity between artist and product.

After Smash Mouth agreed to perform at Camp Jeep, a June event in Charlottesville, Va., Jeep vice president Jeff Bell offered a Wrangler for use in a video for its new single "Get the Picture?" Jeep then decided to place the song in a TV ad campaign it launched just before the album's Aug. 5 release.

The co-branding setup gives the band an opportunity to let its catchy sound hit more ears, while Jeep gets more exposure to a desired demographic. The company also avoids paying royalties for the song in exchange for the extra plugs.

The intriguing - some might say distressing - aspect of this marriage is that the story line for Smash Mouth's video changed slightly to accommodate the Jeep. But because the action occurs on a beach, the product placement isn't exactly a stretch. Already burned by an unhappy commercial alliance within General Motors, Smash Mouth agrees with Mr. Bell's assessment that its 'brand identity' - fun, sun, and parties - "(are) a good fit for the Jeep brand."

The kid-friendly performers also played a day-of-release concert at Toys 'R' Us in New York's Times Square. Fans who bought the album at the store got to hang with the band and get autographs in a private session. The band drove traffic to the store, and the store helped boost first-week album sales figures. These sorts of deals can be described with another "s" word: symbiosis.

Mr. Greenfield of 1st Approach says, "As long as [the connection] makes sense ... as long as there's something real, then it's OK." Today's consumers are hip to co-branding and product placement - and certainly to the use of pop songs in commercials. But they're also sensitive to anything that shouts "tacky marketing ploy!"

Just as smart positioning can build buzz, a misstep can cause a backlash. Be careful, Madonna. Everyone knows your taste is more Gaultier than Gap.

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