With the Internet's flexibility and opportunity for interactivity, some companies are moving beyond banner and pop-up ads and employing new marketing techniques on the Web.
American Express recently launched the Seinfeld & Superman Web site at www.jerry.digisle.tv/room.html, which features a five-minute long "Webisode" called "A Uniform Used To Mean Something," with another scheduled to appear in May.
Directed by Barry Levinson ("Good Morning, Vietnam," "Avalon," "Wag the Dog"), the short films feature Seinfeld hanging out in New York City with an animated Superman voiced by Patrick Warburton (TV's "Seinfeld" and "The Tick").
American Express is following the lead of BMW, widely considered the pioneer of Internet mini-movies. The company brought out a series of short films in 2001 at www.bmwfilms.com,
Under the banner of "The Hire," the eight films were directed by well-known movie directors such as Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and Tony Scott, and starred actor Clive Owen ("Croupier," "The Bourne Identity") as the driver of (surprise!) a spiffy BMW.
Other advertisers who've used the Webisode route include Donna Karan (www.dkny.com) and Volvo, with a European parody documentary about the residents of a Swedish town who are all supposedly buying a Volvo S40 sedan on the same day (www.news40.volvocars.co.uk).
Consisting mostly of entertainment, with only a small amount of actual advertising, the foray is called advertainment by some. Companies are hoping to avoid being perceived as shameless hucksters by jaded, media-savvy Internet users.
Trying to look even less like an advertisement is the Web site for the Godsend Institute (www.godsendinstitute.org), which seems to be a bona fide human reproductive cloning institute. Claiming to have "perfected a procedure by which a single cell could be used to create a genetically identical fetus," the site is actually a promotional tool for the upcoming film "Godsend," starring Robert DeNiro, Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
Godsend's publicist, Jeremy Walker, is the same person who instigated the now-famous campaign for a small film called "The Blair Witch Project." The 11-month campaign generated a lot of online buzz, drawing 3 million hits a day to the site at its peak.
But although "The Blair Witch Project" grossed millions at the box office, it remains to be seen if "Godsend" will benefit similarly. Not all high-concept Internet marketing efforts translate into high sales.
The trailer for the Steven Spielberg-directed "A.I." credited Jeanine Salla as a "sentient machine therapist." A search for the name on the Internet led to the fictitious Bangalore World University and on through an intricate and engrossing set of around 50 Web sites that gave a glimpse of the world portrayed in the film and the plot played out within it.
But opening-weekend grosses for "A.I." didn't reach "Blair Witch" proportions and the film was not a huge success, possibly because of poor word of mouth.
Positive word of mouth is considered by some advertisers the best marketing possible, especially since it costs them nothing.
Burger King capitalized on this recently with its Subservient Chicken site (www.- subservientchicken.com), which allows users to order a man in a chicken suit to move about a small room with some furniture. The "chicken" obeys any command which is not too offensive.
Although the chicken cam site is designed to peddle burgers, it drew a million hits in 24 hours from curious visitors through word of mouth alone. So it's not surprising some are trying to manufacture that kind of marketing.
Dr. Pepper is rolling out a new milk product called Raging Cow and promoting it through online diaries called blogs. It enlisted six teenagers to write about the drink on their blogs, hoping their credibility as real teenagers, and not corporate employees, would convince others more than any official site would.
The effort hasn't fared well with some members of the blogging community, who have even launched a boycott effort against the drink because of the fakery.
Success or failure, it's likely companies will continue to come up with ways to market their wares via the Internet. Here's hoping they're more interesting than annoying.