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8/14/99 - Hex Marks The Spot

It's no secret that advertising draws a great deal of inspiration from popular movies. So it'll be interesting to see what influence the success of the mirco-budget "The Blair Witch Project" has on the commercial world.

Will it trigger a nausea inducing mega- shaky cam craze? Will actors be asked to be their own camera operators, forcing them to join another union? Will "people getting lost in the woods" become a hot theme? And if so, will the 30 second parodies cost ten times more than the 87 minute original?

The irony of this last speculation probably won't be given much thought in the ad world. After all, the conventional wisdom is BIG BUDGET= SUCCESSFUL COMMERCIAL.

However, the success of a commercial can be a difficult thing to quantify. The ad industry has no hard, publicly displayed measurements like best seller lists or box office rankings. Just the soft, subjective success bestowed by award shows and opinion polls.

Defining success the old fashioned way with a gross of over $100 million (and counting), "The Blair Witch Project" has debunked advertising's big budget equation. What's more, it's really just the most visible example of many others who have done likewise.

Due to the digital video revolution sweeping through the independent film making world, shot-on-video productions costing a few thousand dollars are predicted to out number their celluloid counterparts at the Sundance Festival next year. (Great news for the financially put upon family and friends of indie film makers.)

Two films shown in the main competition at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Lars Von Trier's "The Idiots" and Thomas Vinterberg's "Celebration," were shot with hand held consumer digital camcorders.

Same goes for Bennett Miller's "The Cruise," which had national theatrical distribution and was reviewed by all the important critics just like a major Hollywood release.

Oh, and don't think Hollywood hasn't grasped the benefits of this hand held trend. On the small screen for most of the 90s, there's been the curious phenomenon of shows that cost less to produce than the spots that run on them. I'm referring to reality shows like "America's Funniest Videos" and "World's Most Amazing Videos" that are basically composed of footage shot with the kind of camcorders sold at Best Buy.

What's truly amazing about these videos is how non-broadcast quality formats like Hi-8 prove nightly that they are indeed ready for prime time.

The secret behind the success of these low cost productions is a quality often lacking in commercials-- compelling content. These productions command viewers' interest because of what they're portraying rather than how.

Unfortunately, the inverse is true of many commercials, which are merely impeccably produced reshoots of other spots. Ultimately, these clonemercials only serve to dilute the identities of the brands they're supposed to be building.

Take, for example a series of recent commercials that appear to be the product of agency gangbangs that took the form of daisy chains.

Their source of inspiration is most likely a 1998 Volkswagen spot called "Flower" that was part of the award winning campaign that launched the new VW Beetle. It featured VWs moving around on a white background which, as seen from an overhead shot, come together in a rotating daisy shape.

Early this year, Apple launched their multi-colored line of iMacs with a spot titled "Colors" that had computers gliding around a white sweep, culminating in an overhead shot of them forming a daisy shape. (Jeez, isn't Apple supposed to "think different?")

The ability of this execution to showcase lots of product in lots of different colors is presently being put to work by Pop Tarts and Schick ST disposable razors, who have choreographed their own daisy dances. (You can view these garden variety spots here.)

The Blair Witch's woods were possessed by a lot of scary things, but one of them wasn't the spirit of imitation. Hopefully, this movie's biggest influence on the ad world will be as a reminder to exorcise its derivative demons.