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How to Sell Social Change? Put the Message in a Movie

By TANZINA VEGA and STUART ELLIOTT The New York Times Published: October 6, 2011 THE widespread changes in consumer behavior and technology that are prompting marketers to rethink how they sell products are much on the minds of Madison Avenue. That was underlined on Wednesday by spirited discussions during the third day of Advertising Week 2011. Participants at a panel sponsored by Google and the Advertising Council talked about different approaches to embedding messages about social change in media like film and television as well as in advertisements. Using movies to make a case for social change is “a great way to get people to the table,” said Wendy Cohen, director for digital campaigns and community at Participant Media, a film and TV productioncompany that specializes in stories it deems socially relevant. Among Participant productions are fiction films like “Contagion” and “The Help” and documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth.” In some instances, Ms. Cohen said, the role of film to inform viewers about important issues is “taking the place of what we used to get in a reported piece.” For “Contagion,” about a pandemic, Participant created a public service announcement to accompany the movie, describing the causes of pandemics and how to prevent them. Jason Rzepka, vice president for public affairs at the MTV division of Viacom, said social messages have always been an intrinsic part of the channel. As part of a renewed focus on becoming “the cultural home of the millennial generation,” Mr. Rzepka said, MTV will present a two-hour film, “DISconnected,” about cyberbullying among teenagers at 9 p.m. Monday (Eastern Daylight Time). There will be information on resources to help cope with cyberbullying, he added, after the film rather than during it —to avoid appearing “medicinal” to its target audience. “It can’t be read as a two-hour P.S.A.,” Mr. Rzepka said, which would diminish its effectiveness. According to Calle Sjoenell, deputy chief creative officer at the New York office of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, a marketer wanting to be integrated into social messages must “find an issue that really works with your brand.” “If it doesn’t,” he added, “don’t do it.” A success story for Bartle Bogle, Mr. Sjoenell said, was a campaign for the Google Chrome browser with a commercial devoted to the It Gets Better Project, meant to help gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers who have been bullied. The commercial ran in shows like “Glee,” Mr. Sjoenell said, during the National Basketball Association finals. “We got the message out to an audience that probably wouldn’t have paid attention before,” he added. Eric Asche, senior vice president for marketing at the American Legacy Foundation, which produces the antismoking “Truth” campaign aimed at teenagers, said “Entertainment is a key component of how we go to market” because he considers the foundation “as a brand” rather than an organization. As a result, American Legacy has teamed up with channels like MTV and ESPN for campaigns that spoof shows like “The Real World” and “Bassmaster.” A thorny issue that arises when entertainment and advertising converge is whether consumers consider performers who work with brands as sellouts. The panelists at another session offered arguments against that perception. “Our job is to try and balance the art and the commerce,” said Duff Stewart, chief executive of GDS&M, part of the Omnicom Group. He said agencies took great pains not to “bastardize” a band’s music. His agency paired songs by the group Black Keys with Zales, the jewelry retailer. Lori Feldman, senior vice president for brand partnerships and music licensing at Warner Brothers Records, part of the Warner Music Group, said her label tried “to find brands that feel authentic and right” for its bands, especially because “every band is its own brand.” The increasingly fragmented ways consumers learn about new music like podcasts and social media are being supplemented by brand partnerships to assist performers in gaining exposure. Often, commercials have “replaced radio or music videos as a first driver for bands,” said Tom Gimbel, general manager of the PBS show “Austin City Limits.” A panel on innovation focused on how profoundly digital media are changing marketing. The panelists agreed that they required more risk-taking. “There’s never been a time in the industry more creatively open because no one knows” what they’re doing, said Jason Harris, president and executive producer at Mekanism. “You launch something and cross your fingers.” James Spindler, chief creative officer at @radical.media, praised those circumstances. “Because there’s so much that’s new,” he said, “no one can claim expertise.” Mark D’Arcy, director for global creative solutions at Facebook, described two posters on the walls there, which read, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” and “Move fast and build things.” “The whole culture is, ‘Stop talking; build it,’ ” he added. “It’s very different from what I did as an advertising creative director: perfecting and then launching.” Dave Clemans, executive creative director at Taxi, part of the Young & Rubicam Brands unit of WPP, said: “I’m amazed by the large brands looking for bigger, newer, innovative, game-changing ideas. Not just the little guys, the challenger brands, but the big brands.” Even so, he added, some clients believe that “if we can’t come up with the next big thing, let’s grab at the last big thing: ‘That deodorant had a huge viral video. We’ve got to do that for our tennis shoe.’ ” Danny Robinson, senior vice president and creative director at the Martin Agency, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, described clients as “reasonable, most of the time,” adding: “You can’t just tell them, ‘That’s a bad idea.’ You have to give them the replacement.” Mr. Harris suggested a version of that. “Pitch the safe idea” first, he said, “and always also have a not-safe idea” to propose afterward. Advertising Week has taken place each fall in New York City since 2004. This one began on Monday and continues through Friday. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/business/media/movies-and-messages-of-social-change.html?_r=1