The hot movie star of the summer is set to be a car – or rather a huge great people-mover called the Dodge Caravan. The Dodge family utility vehicle plays a leading role in Soccer Mom, a family comedy-cum-road movie due to be released soon. The promotion is an example of the advertising industry's rebirth – renaissance, if you will. Chrysler, which owns the Dodge brand, has parted with serious money to have its car given central casting in the film.
While the movie may have a limited theatrical release, it will feature on cable television in the US, be aired around the world online and available as a DVD. Product placement is the new persuasion – much subtler than the Stone Age advertising approach that exhorted us to buy and buy more.
"Advertising on its own is definitely dead," says Robin Wight, chairman of both the Engine communications group and long-established advertising agency Wight, Collins, Rutherford, Scott. But he adds: "Today advertising is part of a spectrum of communication about oneself, one's product, and one's brand to the wider world. The role of brand is very important and will remain so. Branded content is one of the central ways of doing that."
There are a number of truths lurking behind the smokescreen of this luvvy patois. Product placement is just one subset of "branded content", one of the most visible aspects of the "spectrum of communication" Mr Wight argues has replaced plain-vanilla advertising.
A highly successful piece of product placement was to be found in Casino Royale, the last James Bond movie. Remember the part where Daniel Craig arrives at the airport and hires a Ford Mondeo as he heads for the country club? The audience sees Bond content to swap his traditional Aston Martin, at least temporarily, for the Ford.
Edward Sharp, managing partner of MindShare Performance Europe, the marketing agency owned by the WPP group, explains that the footage was part of an advertising and media strategy: "The 30-second TV commercial is not dead by any means," he adds. "[But] clients are looking for another weapon in the armoury and the impact something like that can create."
The Bond sequence, says Mr Sharp, linked the Mondeo with the cool qualities associated with the film's hero. All the media research shows that Bond's Mondeo driving helped boost sales, particularly in Germany. The manufacturer was so pleased with the results of its product placement that 007's next movie, Quantum of Solace, will show Bond in a Ford Ka.
Product placement is just part of the advertising industry's way of dealing with a new generation of consumers, says Matthew Maxwell, interactive creative consultant and former creative director of the new media agency Twentysix London: "Advertising as we remember it was designed for a society set up as a feudal system – where a small number of power-holders and brokers handed down inalienable truths to a grateful peasantry. A very few TV channels or media publishers were the only sources of information, allowing them to be exploited by advertisers able to insert their messages into the information or entertainment flow.
"Now, as we replace our TVs with PCs, that relationship has spun 180 degrees. The power lies closer to the base of the pyramid, with consumers able to select as well as directly influence the marketing messages they receive. Because we all now have the power to transmit as well as receive, there are conversations taking place about brands that the brands cannot influence – unless they climb down to the same level and participate in those debates."
Mr Maxwell cites the PR guru Matthew Freud with approval: "Freud highlighted the distinction between image, which is formed by advertising and brandguardianship, and reputation – the thing that can be destroyed by a single opportunistic photo from a mobile phone."
A key part of the conversation is being allowed to share the same space as the consumer. Product suppliers can gain that acceptance in various ways, says MindShare's Mr Sharp: "BMW with their current strategy of discreet sponsorship of all types of film is one example of a brand doing things differently. BMW appear to support all genres and lengths of film – sometimes with product placement, sometimes production funding, sometimes PR campaigns to support a movie release. Their film strategy appears to be low-key and long-term."
The mobile phone company Orange, a sponsor of the Cannes film festival for the past seven years, obviously feels it has earned its "indie producer" stripes and has set up a movie production arm in Paris.
The more oblique approach to branded content, could, says Sean Jefferson, Mr Sharp's chief executive at MindShare Europe, "include sponsorship and brand partnerships – there are no hard, independently audited figures, either through the agency or the advertiser. It's a best-guess figure, across Europe, but I'd say content accounts for 9 or 10 per cent of advertising budgets across Europe.
"What we can say is that a lot more money is being spent on online media, and that much of that is content-oriented."
The car manufacturer Audi, for example, has its own digital television channel, also available online, delivering programming about motoring for the vast audience of petrolheads. Inevitably, Audis feature regularly and favourably in the content mix.
MindShare's Mr Jefferson argues that sponsorship is an increasingly important part of the advertiser's weaponry: "It is growing at a rate of about 12 per cent per annum across Europe."
To give some football-related examples, Ford of Europe's name was all over the stadia hosting last week's Champions League quarter finals and was prominent in the establishing shots leading into the television coverage. Castrol has taken a similar up-front position for this summer's Euro 2008.
"Sponsorship's a market worth about €€9bn [£7bn] a year," says Mr Jefferson. "That's your traditional stuff – Champions League, Formula One and so on."
Ad men such as Robin Wight believe that, for all the change of format, the blurring of the line between advertising and editorial, and the need to engage in a "conversation" with new-media consumers, the essence of the advertisers' job remains the promotion and protection of the brand – because brands are what consumers want.
"Brands actually make life easier for consumers, not businesses," he says. "The brain is a cognitive miser interested in making choices as rarely as it can. It wants to engage with interesting things like what to eat next or who to fall in love with, rather than confronting difficulties about products."