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Sellout or smart marketing?

By Lynne MargolisSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2003

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.

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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.

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.