Jennifer Aniston: We’re Coming for Your Sweater

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — For almost a decade now, marketers have dreamed of a world where consumers watching a video or TV show could click on products that they liked and instantly purchase them.

In marketing circles this is called the Jennifer Aniston sweater theory. “Friends” was a popular show and Aniston’s character Rachel a hot item when marketers first floated the idea that consumers would buy Aniston-approved clothing during the show, if given the chance.

Everyone agreed it was a fabulous idea. Too bad the technology didn’t materialize.

But like next summer’s blockbuster on DVD, that kind of product placement embedded in digital video content might really be coming soon to a screen near you. At least, that’s the prediction of a handful of advertising executives holed up at the Digital Hollywood conference here at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

In a discussion about what advertising in the next generation might look like, the tone shifted from tried and true, to whether advertisers are bold enough to try new media.

“Our clients are asking us what is the safest thing to do right now,” said Starcom’s Sherwood Stranieri, who heads up the media company’s natural search group. “But how do you define safety? Is it going with the tried and true or is it looking at the newest and the best and brightest methods? It’s hard for us and them to figure that out because every dollar is being scrutinized.”

The scrutiny was already there before the economy turned south. On the Web, for example, banner ads are still not providing the click-throughs that some advertisers had hoped. Creating brand pages on Facebook and MySpace? Could be better, too. Widgets are cool but how do they carry effective ad messages?

Then there was the product placement discussion. Panelists said they believe product placement — featuring products within content rather than in ads surrounding content — will soon become more prevalent and sophisticated.

Brands will also be experimenting with ways to track consumer reactions to product placement from within video, said Jared Hendler, creative director at public relations and media firm Edelman Digital. He thinks the most obvious way to do this is by offering click-shopping. For example, if a consumer is watching a cooking show and can click on screen to buy the product the host is using, marketers have a very clear campaign success metric to work with.

But Adobe’s Deeje Cooley believes that marketers’ ability to measure consumer response to video ads is still not quite ready for primetime use. Cooley pointed out that actions such as when a viewer starts and stops a video aren’t accounted for in the metrics currently used by marketers.

“AdobeTV is making content for our clients that evangelize how to use our products,” Cooley said. “We do have a hard time measuring. We’ll have four different types of numbers and none of them add up. How big of an audience do we really have? We don’t know.”

Metrics challenges aside, marketers hope that consumers will respond to innovative ways of marketing by shopping — even during a troubled economy.

“Out of chaos comes all opportunities — and we certainly have chaos now,” said panel moderator Terry S. Bienstock, CEO of Mobilactive Media. Hendler believes that the current credit crisis roiling markets will likely create strong interest in digital marketing.

“Is a bad economy going to move people more towards social media spending? I think so. You can’t go backwards. You have to get across the chasm and you must run as fast as you can to get across. And just recently we’re seeing even the most conservative brands that realize they have to harness the brand of social media or they are going to miss the boat.”

Or miss selling a bunch of sweaters on a hot new TV show.

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