Read Any Good Ads Lately?

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Look, Roy, it's a job. You know, the thing people do for money that they wouldn't normally do otherwise. I know you need the dough."

I looked at the envelope stuffed with cash and considered it. After a few seconds, I said, "Five-day minimum, plus expenses."

If every man has his price, as this gumshoe admits, then his creator's was the use of a Lexus and an undisclosed sum of money -- more than a modest book advance but less than what he would get for an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," says Los Angeles writer Mark Haskell Smith. The serial novel he penned is a promotion for the Japanese luxury automaker, which, after some intense focus-grouping, decided that potboiler fiction would be a great advertising hook to reach a younger, hipper client base.

If the tale of "Black Sapphire Pearl" blurs the line between fiction and advertising, it also exemplifies a $2 billion enterprise that is increasingly encroaching on traditional advertising, according to PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn., media research firm. With TiVo skipping commercials and pop-up blockers neutralizing online ads, traditional advertising is under assault everywhere. "Seamless brand integration" means that books, cartoons, video games and even television shows are now the hottest vehicles for advertisers to get their products in front of a target audience.

So Smith, who also writes for television and film, shaped his novel "to be really cool and different and literary." He says, "It doesn't read like an ad." More like this:

The Lexus loaner turned out to be a GS Hybrid. To say it was an upgrade from the battered Crown Vic I'd driven with the LAPD would be an understatement. For one, you don't need a key. You keep the remote control thing in your pocket and to start the car you just push a button on the dash. Like on a computer. In fact the car's more like a super-powered laptop on wheels than anything else.

Call it a fictomercial, a literatisement, branded entertainment. Lexus doesn't really care. As long as it makes people lust after its new top-of-the-line car.

The story is being published in three installments in the Lexus quarterly magazine, which is sent to owners, the last part coming this spring. It's also available, with interactive features, on the company's Web site.

Subtlety is one of the keys to placing a product name in media aimed at sophisticated consumers, says Richard Nelson, head of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. "If it's so heavily overloaded that it's basically a commercial, people aren't going to want to read it, and they won't buy it."

This has led to the increasing popularity of softer marketing ploys, such as event sponsorships (think: author readings hosted by a local dealership, or an art installation commissioned by a major automaker), "webisodes" and "advergaming."

Although more is spent on traditional advertising -- $210 billion a year worldwide -- global product placement rose 42 percent in 2005 and is expected to triple by 2010, PQ Media said.

Some companies have soft-pedaled products in "billboard novels." In the comic novel "Men in Aprons," which Electrolux commissioned and this year will sell on its Web site (and make available for downloads), the vacuum-cleaner brand won't even be mentioned, but the hero will be seen vacuuming. Several years ago, when BMW commissioned a series of film shorts, starring Clive Owen as a BMW-driving chauffeur and created by a bevy of A-list Hollywood directors, the cars went unnamed (though who doesn't know the BMW logo?).

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