How do you get an audience to watch an ad in 2016? By pretending it's something else.
Today, extensions like Adblock Plus can effectively remove commercials from a user's internet experience. PageFair, an internet privacy rights advocacy group, puts the figure of ad-blocking users around the world at roughly 200 million (with an additional 420 million out of 1.8 billion smartphone users).
So, what's a company to do in order to get its message across in this hostile climate?
In May, the tech company Qualcomm released Lifeline, a 30-minute short film conceived, written, and directed by Oscar-winning Birdman screenwriter Armando Bo, featuring Olivia Munn and Joan Chen. A thriller about a "Chinese man using his American girlfriend's smartphone to track her down after she goes missing in Shanghai," the film was made to entertain— as well as, according to The New York Times, "promote the company's new Snapdragon 820 chip set, a smartphone processor."
The product of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, the film features dialogue in English and Chinese and has already received more than 20 million views. Despite the suspenseful and engaging plot, the goal of the film is, of course, to sell phones. According to Fast Company, paraphrasing Bo: "The Qualcomm chip...is the real hero of the film."
Even the behind-the-scenes video of the film has received an additional 100 million views, most of them from China.
Rather than fighting audiences, advertisers are now striving to entertain. “The holy grail is if people seek you out,” Teddy Lynn, chief creative officer for content and social at Ogilvy & Mather, told Fast Company.
This is just the latest in a long line of films, arguably beginning in 2002 with BMW's series of films The Hire, directed by the late Tony Scott and featuring Clive Owen (with appearances from stars like James Brown and Madonna). But, as Steve Golin, founder of Anonymous Content, the multimedia company that produced both Lifeline and The Hire, pointed out: "That was at the time the internet was still dial-up...It would take all night to download.”
"The Qualcomm chip...is the real hero of the film."
Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University, is troubled by the blurring of commercials and entertainment, telling the Times that because ads are, by their very nature, biased towards “the benefits or virtues of the products and, even more troubling, downplay the dangers or risk of a product," the use of cinematic technique and Hollywood talent "makes the commercial intent even harder to perceive and blurs the true purpose behind the work.” But with companies like Prada and Nike getting into the mix, this doesn't look like a trend that will fade anytime soon.
Lou Aversano, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather NY, sees this latest trend as just the extension of a symbiotic relationship: a history of sponsorship that goes back to the dawn of TV and has mutated over the years. As for the future: “I think we continue to push, not just in terms of length, but in terms of the line between entertainment and brand message."
What implications this has for the nature of art, commerce, and filmmaking are yet to be seen, but as famous directors have been making commercials for years, it only seems natural that they should also flock to this new and lucrative art form.