Hollywood promotion ... at church?

Movie product placement and cross-promotion go too far. It's time to set limits on marketing's reach.

This holiday season, beware – because the advertising trap is set. Whether you step into a mall, send the kids off to school, participate in a 4-H program, or even attend a church service, there is no escaping the web of product placement and promotion woven into the marketing of holiday films.

As a professor of marketing, I teach these techniques and the economic importance of satisfying consumers' needs and wants. However, when Hollywood marketing infiltrates civic groups, schools, and churches to promote their films, it has gone too far.

Using religious, educational, and government institutions as vehicles to advertise and market entertainment and consumer products to captive audiences is inappropriate.

Critics contend that product placement and these other types of promotion can be a form of "stealth marketing" that is invasive, manipulative, and distracting.

They are particularly concerned about the vulnerability of young children, who may not be aware that they are being subjected to advertising in films, video games, and even in their schools and churches.

Their concerns are validated in this month's release of the film "Charlotte's Web." Paramount Pictures, Walden Media, and Nickelodeon Pictures have woven a marketing web tied to the G-rated, live action adaptation of one of the bestselling children's books of all time.

A herd of "Charlotte's Web" video games, movie-themed merchandise, and promotional materials is being unleashed online and in schools, libraries, book stores, and retailers. Production companies have recruited local 4-H programs to help promote the film online.

Even libraries and schools are helping to market the film by holding Read-A-Thons. Children and their parents have little hope of avoiding this onslaught.

Another film, "The Nativity Story," a PG-rated drama about the birth of Jesus, has grossed more than $20 million since its release on Dec 1. Merchandise, film trailers, customized commercials, and websites are used to target pastors and church congregations. Downloads are even offered that can be used in sermons.

Marketing techniques that target Christian groups have become more commonplace since 2004, when Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

You were also flooded by this deluge of Hollywood marketing if you were one of the millions who shuffled into theaters this fall to see "Casino Royale" or "Happy Feet."

There is an explosion of brands featured in "Casino Royale." James Bond flies Virgin Atlantic Airways, drives the new Ford Mondeo and Aston Martin DBS (also owned by Ford), all while using Sony computers and Sony Ericcson cameraphones, as time ticks down on his Omega watch. The $100 million these companies spent on media and other promotional support to get consumers to buy their 007-licensed products are poised to pay off big.

"Happy Feet"-themed holiday decorations, events, and merchandising have also flocked into stores and appeared on the Internet. There are penguin pants, slippers, T-shirts, plush toys, and video games. And cross-promotions such as the one between "Happy Feet" and Burger King helped spur the American Academy of Pediatrics to demand that Congress crack down on advertising to children.

The Academy claims that this type of advertising is exploitive and contributes to obesity, anorexia, and inappropriate behavior.

Filmmakers integrate brands into films to ensure cross-promotional advertising in the hopes of creating a blockbuster opening at the box office. Filmmakers also realize cost savings because companies supply some of the products used in the film. Research studies have shown that product placement can create higher awareness and recall among consumers than advertising alone. Combining both marketing techniques results in an even greater impact.

Be warned: Product placement and cross-promotion will only increase as companies compete for attention in a cluttered marketplace.

The scramble is on to avoid having their advertising ignored and deleted by consumers who use digital video recorders (such as TiVo) and video downloads to skip over or avoid commercials.

As long as these many marketing techniques continue to bring in big dollars, they will be attractive to advertisers. So it's time to draw the line. Americans should demand that Congress set limits on the number and type of venues in which marketers can promote their products. This may be the only way we can create a harbor safe from advertisers' clutches.

Bill Ward is an assistant professor of marketing at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y.

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