Paid Programming

Products slip into Net films

Federal Express didnt pay Tom Hanks to deliver its packages, wear its uniform or shoot scenes in its offices for his hit movie Cast Away. But the company sure is glad it granted Hanks request to do those things. A FedEx spokeswoman estimates that more than 54 million people worldwide have been exposed to the FedEx brand because of the movie, which she says amounts to several million dollars worth of advertising.

Product placements have become commonplace in movies. Now, the concept is moving to Web films. Two recent examples: A Ford Focus appears in three short films from AtomFilms, and Callard & Bowser-Suchards Altoids mints are prominently placed in a series of short-form episodes produced by Mondo Media.

Ford Motor and Callard & Bowser-Suchard paid for their placements. Under Fords deal, the value of which AtomFilms puts "in the six figures," the company funded three works, featured on an AtomFilms microsite. Seth Levenson, AtomFilms vice president of sales, says the filmmakers did not lose their creative authority.

"The folks from Ford and [its advertising agency] J. Walter Thompson havent imposed a certain amount of time they want to see the car, or the angle, or what else the filmmaker does with the car," Levenson says. He describes the placement as "subtle" in each of the shorts, which will likely be syndicated through AtomFilms network.

The Altoids ads appeared in a series called Thugs on Film featuring two grizzled movie reviewers. "It works well with thugs because of the nature of the characters -- they can get away with it," says Robin Harper, senior vice president of marketing at Mondo Media. She says shes heard few complaints about the characters pitches. "I think people recognize the ad model from experience with television," she says.

J. Walter Thompson has integrated products into TV shows for more than 50 years. It produced Kraft Television Theatre from 1947 to 1958.

Robert Thompson, a media and pop-culture professor at Syracuse University, isnt surprised to see some shows on the Net following a similar evolution. "Clearly, one of the last great hopes for advertisers being able to remain viable in this new era is to come up with ways in which you have a captive audience," he says.

But while advertisers stand to benefit from the technique, viewers may not be so lucky, Thompson says.

"These great media -- film, television, the Internet -- which are potential places one can distribute visions of humans through storytelling are, in fact, going to be corrupted by visions of corporate things," he says. Such may be the price for a medium hurrying to grow up and make profits.