Exactly twenty days ago, TV viewers in the US were thrown off their couches by a bizarre sight: Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates and comedian Jerry Seinfeld engaging in idle, desultory banter in a discount shoe store.The one-and-a-half minute exchange — which has Seinfeld helping Gates pick a comfortable shoe — ended with Seinfeld asking Gates whether Microsoft will ever come out with computers that are ‘moist and chewy like cake, so we can just eat them while we’re working’ . As far as what-theheck moments on TV go, this interlude rated very high. But that’s because it was a teaser commercial for Microsoft’s new $300-million campaign: it was meant to flummox viewers in the hope of getting them hooked on to a series of ads featuring the two millionaire celebrities. It’s an entirely different matter that at the time of writing this, the software giant had decided to axe the campaign — probably a fallout of the negative publicity the first three Gates-Seinfeld ‘episodic ads’ attracted. But even fierce critics agree that Microsoft got the kind of attention that would otherwise have called for billion-dollar spends.Big-budget campaigns, bigticket celebrities, teaser ads, episodic campaigns where the story unfolds through multiple ads — marketers are clearly pulling all the stops when it comes to catching elusive eyeballs . And the trend doesn’t limit itself to the US. In fact, Indian television has an increasing share of multi-starrer commercials and episodic films. Think Hero Honda’s new, three-minute music video-cum-ad ‘Dhak Dhak Go’ featuring Hrithik Roshan, Priyanka Chopra, Virender Sehwag , Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and half the Indian cricket team (incidentally, the track for the video features the voices of Shankar Mahadevan , Sukhwinder Singh and Shreya Ghoshal). Think Royal Stag’s latest commercial with Saif Ali Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and half the Indian cricket team. Think Pond’s White Beauty, with its six-part episodic campaign starring Saif Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Neha Dhupia. Think Airtel, with its sequential Vidya Balan-Madhavan campaign on the one hand, and the Abhay Deol-Raima Sen film on the other.Granted, none of this is entirely new. The cola giants have routinely used multiple celebs in their ads, perhaps the most famous being Pepsi’s World Cup campaigns featuring Shahrukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar , Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, and the Shahrukh-Kajol-Rani Mukherjee film from the late 90s. Pepsi has also used the ‘episodic’ route, and the cola in fact entered the country with a teaser campaign (remember the Juhi Chawla-Remo Fernandes ‘Are you ready for the magic ?” campaign?) . For that matter, on occasion, even brands like Reebok and LG have used multiple celebs in the same ad. However , today more brands are taking recourse to a combination of these tactics , heralding the arrival of the Blockbuster Commercial — multi-starrers with sequential plotlines that invariably begin in the form of a ‘trailer’ or teaser. It’s fairly easy seeing where all this is coming from — with advertising increasingly competing with entertainment, advertisers feel the need to engage audiences through entertainment . “This is our 25th year and we wanted to build a sense of scale in our communication ,” says Anil Dua, senior VP – sales, marketing & customer care, Hero Honda, of the ‘Dhak Dhak Go’ initiative. It helped that the two-wheeler company had a ready roster of celebs to pull into the project. “The celebs provide a largerthan-life image to the corporate brand. With the right celebrities, you can break the clutter. After all, it’s the engagement that connects the audience with the brand,” says Dua.Adds Bikram Basu, VP – marketing, Pernod Ricard India , which owns Royal Stag: “Multiple endorsers increase a brand’s draw. They add layers to a brand personality, and appeal to more people.” It’s also a question of outshouting everything else on the telly. Anuja Chauhan, VP & ECD of JWT, who has a long history of working on multistarrer projects by virtue of her association with brand Pepsi, points out that multi-starrer commercials are natural, given that almost every brand today has one if not two celeb endorsers . “Dhoni endorses some 20 brands today, so Dhoni is no longer a USP of an ad. ‘Mere ad mein Dhoni hai, Shahrukh hai aur Priyanka hai’ — now that is the new USP,” she says. Ogilvy’s executive creative director Sumanto Chattopadhyay , who was involved in the creation of the Pond’s White Beauty campaign, draws an analogy to the multi-starrer movies of the 1970s. “Somebody in Bollywood figured out that if one star delivers one bang at the box office, three stars deliver three bangs. It’s the same thing now in advertising — if two celebs work, why not three or four?” he says. Interestingly enough, Manish Porwal, CEO, Percept Talent Management, points out that multi-starrer ads are also a function of there being fewer ‘celeb icons’ going around. “Once upon a time, you had icons who were far ahead in popularity compared to others. Now the gap between ‘icons’ and other stars has narrowed; so marketers get four stars to deliver the same impact of one star,” he says. Celebrities are just one aspect . Advertisers are also experimenting with form and formats. For instance, the ‘long-form film’ has become fairly popular in the US, where eight- or nine-minute long commercials — like the famous BMW short films and this year’s ‘Key to Reserva’ ad featuring Martin Scorsese — thrive through internet downloads and forwards.“Nowadays, audiences will watch you only if you can draw them. Episodic films, for example, are like a good TV serial — you want to know what’s happening in the protagonists’ lives so you keep going back to them,” says Chattopadhyay. And, of course, the best part of such experimentation is that it works as great PR — it gets written about in the papers and blogs, and gets people talking. Even though the jury is still out on whether any PR is great PR. For all its apparent virtues, the blockbuster approach has its share of problems. The episodic format, for instance, hinges entirely on plot progression over a period of time. As Microsoft’s Gates-Seinfeld experiment shows, it would take an exceptionally brave (or foolhardy, depending on how you see it) client to see such an execution to its logical conclusion in the face of negative audience response. And when it comes to multiple celeb endorsers, it’s common knowledge that celebrities — particularly movie stars, who are extremely conscious of aspects like image, footage and screen time — whet every script, even for a 30-second commercial. “The prerogative for the script lies with the star,” says Atul Kasbekar, CEO of talent management company , Bling Entertainment . He adds that it’s the job of celebrity managers to ensure that ‘their star’ gets a good deal in terms of money — and footage. Disclosure of co-stars is important to bigger stars and celebrities like to exercise creative control as well. “Insecurities are bound to occur, but as long as they have creative control, celebrities will not have too much of a problem,” says Percept’s Porwal. All this, of course, can give advertising writers the heebiejeebies . “It’s a total nightmare,” JWT’s Chauhan shudders. “There are issues like I won’t shoot with so-and-so , so-andso has a better role or a better hair style. And if you have two women stars in the ad, you may as well slit your wrists. To keep track of the script and the brand in the middle of all this is scary.” The problem, adds one celeb manager, manifests more with Bollywood celebs; cricket stars, in comparison , have fewer hassles — a function of being used to teamwork, he reasons . Chattopadhyay admits that he’s heard such horror stories, but says he’s been fortunate enough not to encounter any of this. “The trick, of course, is to write a script that can accommodate four-five celebs — in 30- or 40-seconds . It needs great skill,” he says. If there’s a mitigating factor, it’s this. “It’s always clear who the rock stars are in the pecking order,” says Kasbekar, hinting at how best to write for multi-starrer ads. The larger issue is one of relevance and what multiple endorsers can do for the brand. “Look at the Hero Honda ad — makes no sense. Celebrities are not substitutes for an idea,” says Chauhan. In fact, independent forum whattothink .org has started an online signature campaign asking for the video-cum-ad to be yanked off air — with all of 16 signatures gathered so far. R Chandrasekar, senior VP – marketing, Bharti Airtel, concedes that a creative thought — and not celebrities — should be the starting point. Pointing out that while Airtel has used a lot of celebrities, they are used selectively, and not for every ad. “The key decision before roping in a celebrity is what he or she adds to the film in terms of cut-throughs and cost-benefit . We add celebs to a film only where the story can be improved with a celeb’s presence,” Chandrasekar says. Another pitfall arises when multiple celebs with conflicting brand personalities start pulling an ad in different directions. “One has to be careful of the communication objectives that lie behind their use to avoid confusing consumers,” says Motorola’s Trivikram Thakore, head – brand marketing, mobile devices, India & South West Asia. Pernod Ricard’s Basu agrees, saying: “Care needs to be taken to ensure that multiple endorsers leave behind a similar personality mapping for the brand.” He adds that for Royal Stag, each endorser has delivered individually — and collectively. No one’s quite sure how much longer the Blockbuster Commercial will last. “If you are the 23rd advertiser making a multi-starrer ad it will not deliver value, unless you have something refreshing,” says Kasbekar. We’re still quite some distance from that figure, and chances are it’ll take time for the novelty to wear off. Motorola’s Thakore believes that as marketers explore “new ways of tagging consumers, we will see more initiatives like trailers, episodic ads and multi-starrers commercials” . Chattopadhyay thinks more clients — particularly those with deep pockets — will try their hands at ‘blockbusters’ . And as Chauhan points out, it’s in everyone’s interest to juice it better — advertiser, agency, celebrity, celebrity manager and filmmaker.