Advertisers Entertain with Mini-Movie Spots

An allergy-plagued city girl visits her beau's family farm. A young woman goes on one disastrous date after another until finding Mr. Right. And Jerry Seinfeld (search) takes a road trip with Superman.

They might sound like movie plots or sitcom episodes. But they're actually the "storylines" of ads.

"Advertainments," as these spots are called, are becoming increasingly common, as marketers struggle to keep viewers interested during the commercial breaks that many people can skip over with TiVo — or just plain tune out.

"Advertisers don't want people switching channels and so they use entertainment to keep people glued," said Richard Linnett, a reporter and columnist for Advertising Age who covers pop culture.

That's no easy feat when contending with short attention spans, an overload of choices and new technology.

"They're looking to create things that are zap proof … something [consumers] will want to watch the same way they want to watch ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,'" said Michael McCarthy, media reporter for USA Today.

The "advertainments" have characters and plots that viewers can follow like those of a TV show.

A commercial for the allergy medicine SINGULAIR (search ) gets a lot of airtime and has even spawned some online discussions about the actress who plays the glasses-clad, stylish woman named Trisha on a trip to her boyfriend's family farm.

Sitting in a trendy, urban lounge, she tells a friend about the visit.

"So, you on a farm?" her pal asks.

"Yeah, imagine … with my allergies!" Trisha replies.

The commercial shows her taking a tractor ride with her beau's dad, feeding hens and walking through a flower-dotted meadow. By the time the ad ends, it's clear the trip has been a success.

"The casting is brilliant. The whole thing goes through a character arc," Linnett said. "That is a very, very popular ad. It plays over and over again. The brand has greater recall."

A spot for the oral contraceptive Yasmin also tells a story viewers can get invested in. It shows a woman at the end of a series of first dates, saying good-bye to each suitor. The first couple of guys are bordering on psychotic. The third is a goofball in a pickup who yells, "You rock, babe!" But the last one is it — a handsome gentleman who walks her to the door and kisses her goodnight. The slogan: "When you find the right one, you know."

The Seinfeld/Superman ads for American Express have the comedian and the superhero hanging out together — in Manhattan in one spot and on a road trip in another. The product gets minimal airtime when Seinfeld flashes the card to get himself and his cartoon friend out of the predicament they've wound up in.

And Verizon has launched a series of spots, each of which focuses on a different family and mimics the sitcom format. One of them, "The Elliotts," is about a multicultural couple (a Caucasian husband and Latino wife) and their four kids. In each spot, one family member is trying a new Verizon product or service.

"All the characters recur, which creates familiarity with the viewers," said Verizon spokesman John Bonomo. "It's the same kind of familiarity created with a sitcom."

The ad-as-story fad is piggybacking off a wildly popular campaign launched in 1990 for Taster's Choice (search ) instant coffee, which included several episodes of a mini soap opera of sorts.

The ads told the tale of a woman and her neighbor falling madly in love after she borrows coffee from him. Viewers and the media were hooked on the saga, which turned particularly juicy when the woman's ex-husband decided he wanted her back.

What's different about the trend now, experts say, is that there are more of these kinds of ads because there's a more pressing need to capture and keep audiences.

"Advertisers are realizing they can't just club consumers over the head anymore," McCarthy said. "They have to dazzle and make them laugh in the same way a movie does."

And if viewers get a kick out of watching an ad, they might make the connection that they'll get a kick out of the product, too.

"To entertain your consumers is to keep them enthralled with your message," said Linnett. "If they find pleasure in it, the brand itself evokes pleasure."