FADE IN: An impossibly handsome man guides his convertible up to a dilapidated house squatting on a deserted street. He exits; his white suit glints in the sun as he expertly surveys the landscape from behind impenetrable sunglasses. In his hand: a metallic attaché case. Members of a SWAT team maneuver silently out from behind a fence. The driver takes out his cell phone and dials. A man’s voice answers. The driver says simply “I’m here.”

The latest Hollywood blockbuster? A prime-time television drama? Neither. It’s advertising. Or, more accurately, advertising on steroids, otherwise known as branded entertainment.

This is the opening to a film called “The Hostage,” produced by BMW and their former advertising agency, Fallon, employing the genius of the A-list director John Woo. To understand why this and seven other BMW films were made, one need only look to the recent challenges that face what has long been a brand’s prime advertising venue: television. Media platforms are multiplying; the internet moves ever-closer to being our primary source of information, music and entertainment; and all while television recording technology allows for easier ad-skipping. Advertisers the world over are searching for new ways to use the power of film to reach increasingly-elusive viewers.

FADE IN: We hear the sounds of a clicking camera shutter and rapid breathing as we peer through tall grass. Across the field, a gang of men carrying automatic weapons force a group of people from the back of truck. Click. The thugs line the locals up, hands on head. Click, click. It’s over quickly: one woman screams, there are shots, and bodies fall to the ground. The grass rustles as the hidden photographer races through the field, breathless, and not silent enough. Two gunmen hear him, stop and shoot blindly into the grass. We hear a body fall, see dog tags suspended, and the words “Times War Photographer, Harvey Jacobs, was wounded after witnessing the massacre at Nuevo Colon. In a desperate effort, the United Nations sent a vehicle to get him out.”

It was a single statistic arising out of some market research that prompted BMW to try out a new approach to reach their potential customer: 85% of BMW buyers checked out the brand’s website before buying a vehicle. In a bold strategy that would define the current standard of excellence in branded entertainment, BMW decided it would shift from a market “push” strategy to a “pull.” Commissioning eight top directors to make short films featuring their cars, BMW launched those films on its website in 2001, while reducing spending on TV ads.

Unqualified Success?

In terms of buzz, the films were an unqualified success. Within the first year of the launch the films had been viewed more than 10 million times. Two million people registered on the site after viewing the films and 60% of those signed up to receive more information via email. Of the registrants, an amazing 94% recommended the films to others, and over 40,000 people volunteered to respond to a survey. By October 2005, when the films were taken down, they had been viewed more than 100 million times and had been reviewed as “cinema” by Time and The New York Times.

And yet, after all this evidence of success, BMW discontinued this experiment with branded entertainment. Why? According to a 2005 article in Ad Age, it just got too expensive. Whatever the reason, until now little has been made publicly available on what the Hire series of films actually bought for the BMW brand. As any advertiser working in this nascent field will tell you, entertainment is only half the equation. The branded part, the ability of the films to ring the corporate register in Munich, was always where BMW’s rubber met the road.

As advertising researchers, we at Ameritest are interested in understanding how this new genre of branded entertainment works at a deeper level than simple awareness to make a contribution to the brand. So we took upon ourselves to quantitatively test two of the eight BMW Films: “Hostage,” directed by John Woo, and “Powder Keg,” directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu.

One Worked, One Did Not

What we found out was that one movie worked very hard to build the brand’s image in the eyes of the consumer; but the other movie did not.

As you can see in Table 1, after viewers have seen the “Hostage” film there is a pre-to-post increase in respondent perceptions of BMW as a leader in innovation and dominating the luxury car category. Directionally, there is also a lift for superior handling and an exhilarating driving experience. In contrast, for “Powder Keg” there is actually a decrease, post-viewing, in the perception of BMW as a luxury brand—not surprising, perhaps, in the context of this film that shows the BMW in a poverty-stricken environment. Beyond that, none of the other brand ratings are lifted by viewing this film.


From an investment standpoint, therefore, branded entertainment appears to be a highly risky business—with the odds of success seen here being no better than 50/50. Consequently, we wanted to learn how research could be used to manage that risk, as we do for our clients’ traditional advertising films. Our first question to answer, therefore, was why BMW’s brand ratings were being lifted by “Hostage” but not by “Powder Keg.”

We believe that to understand how films are working as ads you first need to understand how they are working as films. Every teacher of writing has a way to talk about the guts of a story. Some call it the “core theme,” some the “pulse” of the story, but we find Robert McKee’s film term most applicable—the “Controlling Idea.” Robert McKee, screenwriting consultant and author of the book Story, defines the controlling idea as “a story’s meaning expressed through its action and emotional climax”.

Since the making of brands is ultimately about making products or services meaningful to consumers, understanding the processes by which meaning is expressed through the a film’s action and emotional climax—the controlling idea—is of critical importance to understanding how film works as advertising. As we will see, the lens of controlling idea will provides us with a useful conceptual framework for managing the creation of branded entertainment. But to make effective use of the concept of the controlling idea, we researchers also need to ground theory in measurement. We need tools for measuring the audience’s cognitive and emotional response to film—and we need a way to measure, from the audience perspective, the meaning of film images.

Branding Moments

Ameritest has pioneered the use of picture sorts to measure moment-by-moment audience response to advertising film, both in terms of cognitive processing and emotional engagement. We have published validation work on our Flow of Attention® to show how the rhythm and tempo of visual storytelling peaks are related to attention-getting power and the formation of advertising memories, such as those measured by recall testing and tracking studies. We have also published work showing how a second picture sort, the Flow of Emotion® explains how different dramatic structures can be used to create viewer engagement and persuasion, to move consumers closer to the brand. In these earlier articles we have shown that these two dimensions of audience response to film are independent, providing researchers with two distinct, but equally important, points of view for examining the internal structure of advertising film. But until now, we haven’t shared the full power that you gain when you put the two patterns together—the focal points of the mind and the dramatic beat of the heart—to identify the Branding Moments™ of advertising film.

From a scientific standpoint, “film” is a mechanical system that creates the illusion of movement by reproducing equidistant snapshots of time to create the perception of continuity. The movies were the invention of Edison and Dickson of perforated film for cameras. In this mechanistic view, each of the instants of time captured on the film are equally important for creating the illusion. But from an artistic standpoint, however, movement is related to privileged instants—certain moments in the film that take on particular significance. According to the French philosopher of film, Gilles Deleuze,


“…the cinema seems to thrive on privileged instants. It is often said that Eisenstein extracted from movements or developments certain moments of crises, which he made the subject of the cinema par excellence. This is precisely what he called the ‘pathetic’: he picks out peaks and shouts, he pushes scenes to their climax and brings them into collision.”

The meaningful moments of film are where our thoughts and our emotions come together. This is the essence of a work of art according to McKee, “Because in life idea and emotion come separately. Mind and passions revolve in different spheres of our humanity, rarely coordinated, usually at odds.”

Research can be used to identify these privileged moments of a piece of film, the moments where thoughts of the audience and the emotions of the audience come together, by plotting the Flow of Attention against the Flow of Emotion, in a grid like that shown in Exhibits 1 and 2. The images in the upper right hand quadrant of this graph are, by definition, the ones that stand out the most in terms of both audience attention and audience emotions. In a previous Admap article we have shown that these privileged moments (maximum thought + maximum feelings) are the ones where long term advertising memories are formed. These are the Branding Moments of ad film.

In “Hostage,” Clive Owen’s character, the Driver, is tasked with finding a female CEO of a huge burger chain. She has been kidnapped by an ex-employee, played by the character actor Maury Chaykin, who when we meet him has merely a passing acquaintance with his sanity. The Driver, pulling up to the kidnapper’s run-down lair in his BMW Z4 Roadster, exits the car. Standing in the street in his white suit, the Driver is the modern-day gunfighter in this homage to the American western—which the skillful camera of John Woo utilizes without losing the film’s contemporary currency. mental and physical strength of the Driver is tested as he races against time riding his BMW stallion to the woman’s rescue—who instead of being tied to the railroad tracks is tied inside the trunk of a car sinking rapidly into the rising tide.

In Iñárritu’s film “Powder Keg” a rescue is also taking place, but of a different sort. Clive Owen, again as the Driver, is sent in to rescue a photographer. The photographer has been badly wounded by gunmen he has documented massacring farmers in a remote field in a place called Nuevo Colon. The photographer, played by the accomplished Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, is picked up by the Driver in a BMW SUV to be taken across the border to safety, where he can deliver the evidence of this latest act of brutality. Of course, this is not an unencumbered ride, as the “authorities” are not anxious to see the photographer, and especially the film, end up on the other side of the border.

A branding-moments analysis of film creates a set of pictures that represents the essence of the film from the audience perspective—the bones of the story. You could easily arrange these pictures into storyboard and use it to describe the film to someone, leaving out no dramatic story event.

In terms of the first dimension of audience response, the Flow Attention, what we saw with “Hostage” was that more images made it past the gatekeeper of the mind than were held onto by viewers of “Powder Keg.” If you’ve seen the films, this is easily understood. “Hostage” is a much more visually complex film, with more visual information than “Powder Keg,” which has much of its action on the same dirt road.

In terms of the second dimension of audience response, the Flow of Emotion, peak emotional moments were more numerous in “Powder Keg” than in “Hostage.” Again, if you’ve viewed these films, this will not be a surprise to you. “Powder Keg,” with its massacre, martyrdom and grieving mother is moving portrayal of a few minutes in a war photographer’s life. However, as you will see, in branded entertainment as in other advertising the quantity of emotion is not enough. If that emotion is not put to work for the brand, it’s not branded entertainment.

But when we look at what moments make it into both peak attention and peak emotion, the branding moments of the film, there is merely a single image of the BMW in “Powder Keg,” compared to 45% of the shots featuring the brand in“Hostage.” Yet, this is not a matter of time on screen; the BMW is actually on screen longer in “Powder Keg” than in “Hostage.”

The Controlling Idea

The explanation is tied directly to the way these stories are constructed. Following McKee’s definition, we should be able to demonstrate that the action and the emotional climax tie back seamlessly to the controlling idea of each film. Based on the qualitative research, here is our interpretation of the controlling ideas of these two films:

“Hostage”: Life is worth saving even if that life is corrupt.

“Powder Keg”: Corruption is worth fighting, even if we fail.

By extension, this concept also points out each film’s protagonist, and what instrument he uses to carry out the film’s controlling idea.

In “Hostage,” the Driver rescues the woman and saves her life, only to discover along with the audience that she was having an affair with the kidnapper and then discarded him. The action of the entire film is the saving of her life. And the emotional climax of the film is learning that the life the Drives saved is corrupt. Yet, the data shows the emotional response to the Driver is that of a hero. Positive emotional response to him as he drives into the sunset is not diminished by the quality of the life he saved.

Following this controlling idea, the protagonist of “Hostage” is the Driver—the saver of life. The heroic instrument is the BMW Z4—the instrument without which viewers told us they were unsure of his ability to succeed in his quest.

Let’s contrast this to the film “Powder Keg.”

In “Powder Keg,” the rescue of the photographer is built around his life story. He recounts all the wars, all the photos he has taken trying to change the world and fight corruption. He has sacrificed a home life, and his own life, to this fight. The action of the film is the story of the fighting of corruption. The emotional climax? An ambiguous victory. The photographer wins a posthumous Pulitzer while the Driver brings the dead photographer’s dog tags to his blind mother. Will anything change? Who knows, but the photographer is no less heroic because of it.

The protagonist of this film is the one who carries out the controlling idea: the heroic photographer who fights corruption. The heroic instrument then? The film—not the car.

Branded Entertainment is not the same thing as Product Placement. In Branded Entertainment, the brand is not placed in the story; the brand is an instrument in the story—you couldn’t imagine another brand in its place. What then does the audience, the final arbiter of these controlling idea theories, have to say? From our qualitative interviews we learned that the BMW was the hero in one movie, but not the other:

“I couldn’t stop thinking about the car…maybe another kind of car, it would have fallen off the bridge.”

– “Hostage” Viewer

“The car seemed out of place. Anyway, it wasn’t about the car. It just happened to be a BMW.

– “Powder Keg” Viewer

When the visual Picture Sorts data is examined, we find that the audience understood these films all along. In “Hostage,” the film that lifted ratings of brand BMW, the beauty shot of the Z4 car was the strongest image of the film when it comes to both attention and emotion. For “Powder Keg?” It was the image of the bloody film on the seat of the car.

Our years of analyzing and conducting research on advertising film have reminded us repeatedly of the cognitive and emotional intelligence behind how the viewer processes stories on film. While film may be a product of relatively recent history, stories are not—and it is critical to our understanding of branded entertainment to neglect neither the narrative nor the visual structure in our examination. If advertisers are going to be successful at all in the making of good branded entertainment, or even product integration that works and makes good sense, they can’t start in a better place than employing the rigors of research to understand exactly how the viewer watches film and processes brand stories.


Deleuze, G., “Cinema 1: the movement image”, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

McKee, R., “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”, New York: Harper Collins, 1997

Young, C., “Aesthetic Emotion and Long Term Ad Effects,”Admap, April 2006

Halliday and Graser, M., Advertising Age,” BMW Pulls out of Branded Entertainment”, September 28, 2005

Pasick, A., “BMW Films Zooms Around the Net”, Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2002.

Shachtman, N., “Crouching Madonna, Hidden Beemer”, Wired, June 7, 2001

Kiley, D., “The New Wave of Net Films”, Business Week, November 30, 2004

Halliday, J., “Car Companies Work to Replicate Buzz of ‘The Hire’” Advertising Age, August 9, 2005