Sponsors Target greater control in ROI rage

THE NEW TARGET-EXCLUSIVE edition of the New Yorker slaps a cautionary bull’s eye across the backs of those in the business of arts and ideas, inasmuch as this otherwise innocuous exercise demonstrates how advertisers — understandably fretting about market fragmentation — are beginning to suffer from ROI rage.

ROI refers to “return on investment,” the desire to subject marketing to hard-and-fast scientific rigor. This ideal continues to annoy and befuddle media buyers, spurring recent conjecture about how the efficiency of newspapers, TV and radio is being reexamined as means of selling movies or other diversions.

The problem, alas, is that ascertaining why people went, tuned in or stayed away incorporates a wide assortment of factors, which hasn’t squelched the urge among marketers to reevaluate everything. If nothing else, it makes for a dandy negotiating ploy.

We’ve already been inundated with product-placement innovations, of course, which will be readily apparent to anyone viewing NBC’s weight-loss competition “The Biggest Loser.” In this fall’s premiere episode, the camera caresses the 24 Hour Fitness logo so lovingly I wanted to join one of the contestants by heaving into the shrubbery. Mindful of this trend, Nielsen recently unveiled plans for a collaborative study to assess product placement’s effectiveness, citing advertisers’ “intense focus on ROI” and the “spotlight on brand integration.”

The latest wrinkle, meanwhile, involves transforming products and even artists into de facto subsidiaries of a given sponsor, from the aforementioned New Yorker to Johnson & Johnson’s “spotlight” TNT movie presentations to Wal-Mart becoming the exclusive distributor of country star Garth Brooks’ next album, which means that I can happily extend my dual streaks of never purchasing a Brooks CD and never shopping at Wal-Mart.

FEW CONSUMERS RELISH the idea of paying for that which we have grown accustomed to receiving free, so it’s only fair to allow advertisers a degree of latitude in experimenting with convention. Still, as much as some conservatives would like to dial the culture back to the 1950s — when single sponsors oversaw programs — for the media and public that would be a very bad thing.

Lest anyone forget, spreading commercial time among multiple sponsors placed content decisions in the hands of programming execs, diluting the oversight of advertisers. And while there are exceptions such as “The Hallmark Hall of Fame,” sponsors cannot be counted upon historically to champion daring fare, preferring the warm and fuzzy to, say, the controversial 1989 movie “Roe v. Wade,” which NBC proceeded to air despite resistance from media buyers — a challenge that still faces the high-quality FX dramas “Nip/Tuck” and “The Shield.”

The question is where all this corporate control ultimately leads. After all, we’re not talking about the Medicis here, functioning as patrons of art and literature, but commercial enterprises with a mandate to boost sales and make their product glisten. So while it might make practical sense for Sports Illustrated to be wholly sponsored by a company like Budweiser, it’s hard to imagine the magazine regularly covering the louts who get hammered on beer at stadiums under such an arrangement.

A similar queasiness arises contemplating stars and programs going the Brooks route, though it’s fun to play with the matchups. Century 21 brings you “Desperate Housewives” — to help find your little slice of Wisteria Lane? Experience Courtney Love, exclusively from Rite-Aid Pharmacies? The complete Kirstie Alley filmography at Jenny Craig? And what better umbrella could there be for cable sisters of woe Greta Van Susteren, Nancy Grace and Rita Cosby than Pepto-Bismol?

THE REAL DILEMMA with ROI infatuation is that it frequently seeks to extrapolate from purchasing behavior in imprecise ways given the variables at work. That doesn’t mean buyers shouldn’t try to maximize and measure how their campaigns pay off, only that their determination to ooze deeper into content comes with its own set of risks.

What they’re not taking into account is what I call the “Runaway Obnoxiousness Tax,” or ROT, a hard-to-gauge ratio that can be seen to at least some degree in consumer flight from ad-saturated movie theaters and TV shows replete with product plugs despite offering less than 44 minutes of program content per hour.

So by all means, get all the ROI you can out of those media budgets. Don’t be surprised, though, if before long the hard-sell tactics begin to inflict ROT on all our brains.

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