Something strange is happening on Wisteria Lane. Between the adulteries and murders, Mike Delfino, the hunky plumber/private investigator is taking time out of his hectic schedule to do a little yard work.

As the camera pans deliberately over his chiseled physique, another hard body also makes it into the frame: that of a Nissan Titan pickup truck.

At the same time just down the street, town tramp Edie Britt is soaping herself up along with her Nissan 350Z.

Coincidence? We think not.

“We flushed out the characters a little bit, and we felt the Titan was right and the Z roadster was a little bit fun,” Mike Grollman, senior manager-lifestyle marketing and auto sales, Nissan North America Inc., says of placing the pickup truck and sports car in ABC’s hit Sunday soap “Desperate Housewives.”

When ratings hit the stratosphere, “we, like everybody else, went, ‘Wow, this show’s a hit and great, our vehicles are integrated into it,’” says Grollman.

Nissan first heard about the show before ABC purchased it, when it was in the pilot stage, and decided to showcase its products, sans payment to the network, which Grollman says is Nissan policy.

It may make steam shoot out of some consumer advocates’ ears, but companies are getting downright radical in their search for new ways to market their products to an increasingly savvy and jaded public that tunes out or fast-forwards through traditional 30-second TV commercials and print ads.

Auto makers, and sometimes even suppliers, are resorting to non-traditional “new age” marketing methods to grab attention and break through the clutter.

Product placement (also called “brand integration” or “product fusion”), viral marketing and blogging are part of the menu, along with marketing techniques that defy description, such as braiding a star athlete’s hair to match the tread pattern of a new tire.

It is all aimed at getting noticed in a 900-channel TV universe, complete with commercial-zapping devices such as TiVo and other TV recording devices.

“We’re in a very interesting time (in the brand marketing world),” says Simon Williams, president and CEO of brand consultancy firm The Sterling Group. “The days of traditional advertising – traditional 30-second TV advertising – (are) dead. If not, (they’re) dying.”

He says advertising, specifically TV advertising, the key platform many companies use to get their marketing message out, “has been incapable in the last 25-30 years to justify true (return on investment).

“And ad agencies are still very much in denial, (believing) a different permutation of a 30-second commercial will work,” Williams says.

Lincoln Merrihew, managing director-automotive practice, Compete Inc., concurs: “If you’re a smaller company, and you try to make a splash in the marketplace and Honda comes in…even if you spend $20 million (on a TV ad campaign), Honda’s spending $100 million.

“It almost doesn’t matter how good your ad is; it’s just going to be very hard to be heard because Honda’s yelling at a $100 million volume and you’re yelling at a $20 million volume,” he says.

So in a battle to climb out of the rut of look-alike ads and win over new customers, most of the world’s auto makers are resorting to a long list of new-age marketing techniques, ranging from the familiar to the outrageous.

Some examples:

  • Ford Motor Co., which says less than 80% of its current ad budget goes toward traditional TV and print advertising, last fall featured current and past-generation Mustangs in an episode of the NBC drama “American Dreams.” Ford also has been giving away vehicles on ABC’s hit reality show, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and is a sponsor of Fox’s “American Idol.”

    Last year a short film clip, rejected by Ford and its European ad agency, of a Ford car killing a bird by whacking it with its hood and chopping a curious cat’s head off with its sunroof, was mysteriously distributed on the Internet via personal e-mails using a technique known as “viral marketing.”

    This is a strategy that encourages individuals to pass along a marketing message to others, usually because it is especially interesting or humorous, while also too offensive for mainstream audiences.

  • Volkswagen of America Inc. in January announced a multi-year global marketing deal with media conglomerate NBC Universal to integrate VW vehicles into the company’s TV shows, films and amusement parks.

  • American Honda Motor Co. Inc. inked a 10-year deal with The Walt Disney Co. to become the official sponsor of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebrations’ fireworks display, as well as for Honda products to be the official cars, motorcycles and power equipment products of Disneyland.

  • Chrysler Group had its Chrysler Pacifica model on the first season of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” and its hot-selling 300C made an appearance on the season finale of the network’s drama “ER” last year. Last October Chrysler suspended a Jeep Grand Cherokee off the side of a Manhattan skyscraper to promote the redesigned ’05 model.

  • Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. will sponsor and integrate certain models in the upcoming NBC reality-boxing show, “The Contender,” starring Sylvester Stallone, in a deal reportedly valued at $16 million. Toyota’s Scion youth brand has banged the alternative marketing drum quite often, most notably by placing Scion models at trendy locales, such as nightclubs and art galleries, around the U.S.

But perhaps no marketing stunt is more memorable, or more talked about, than what happened last Sept. 13 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

To kick off the 19th season of her top-rated TV talk show, Winfrey surprised her audience by giving each of them a new Pontiac G6 sedan – free.

“We needed to launch the G6 in a sea of midsize sedans. I think there are 44 out there,” says Pontiac Advertising Manager Mary Kubitskey. “We didn’t have enough ad money for the best advertising in the world to ever stand a chance of breaking through that clutter, so we had to do something huge and something very different.”

Huge and different it was. On the day of the giveaway, and subsequent days and weeks, it generated the kind of media attention and buzz companies salivate over.

Although GM deems the estimated $8 million G6 promotion a great success, the Oprah giveaway did draw a bit of bad publicity as well. Reportedly some winners were upset when they found out they had to pay a hefty tax bill for their windfall, although Pontiac executives deny there was any problem. And the vehicle was not yet available at many dealerships.

Some industry watchers also wondered if the giveaway and the ensuing publicity it generated was good for Pontiac, but better for Oprah.

“A lot of people talked about Oprah and they talked about Pontiac, (but) did anyone actually shop the G6, and did they for just a day or did it last?” asks Merrihew.

“I saw 276 very happy people, and there’s Oprah, and it was great for Oprah, but I didn’t see much on Pontiac. I didn’t hear her say, ‘This is a Pontiac kind of day,’ or something. Or ‘Thank goodness Pontiac was here,’ or ‘Pontiac really cares about people,’” Merrihew says.

And some question the wisdom of tying a product to a predominantly female event, which could stereotype the G6 buyer from the outset.

Merrihew, whose firm measures shopper behavior via data licensed from Internet service providers, says consumer interest in the G6 as a result of Oprah was short-lived.

“The Oprah campaign got (the G6) a great initial lift. It lasted a day or two, but the resonance was almost non-existent,” says Merrihew, citing Compete statistics showing the greatest number of the 52,900 total consumers that shopped the G6 in September looked at the vehicle on the day of the event (22%) and the day following (29%).

But GM disagrees with such a negative assessment and says the promotion created unparalleled awareness for a brand new product.

“People might take six months, a year, to consider a (vehicle) purchase,” says Mark Hans-Richer, Pontiac’s director of marketing. “The automotive industry is not like selling toothpaste or bags of chips.”

Richer says sales of the G6 are lagging behind that of the model it replaces, the Grand Am, largely because the product pipeline still is filling up, and the new car currently is offered with only one engine option and one body style (more variants are coming this year).

Also, Richer says G6 awareness among men was equal, maybe higher, than awareness among women following the giveaway.

But the question remains: Are auto makers’ unorthodox methods accomplishing the goal of selling more vehicles?

No one really knows just yet.

With product placement, the most trendy and visible of all new-age marketing techniques, Sterling Group’s Williams says, “we’re learning that business, and it’s a scramble in that business. Everybody claims to be a genius at (product placement) and they’re all moviemakers and scriptwriters and old art directors. Anybody can be a product placement expert now.”

For companies interested in doing product placement, they can consult a number of firms with operations dedicated to the process; names such as AIM Productions, Hero Product Placement, Monkey Junction Entertainment and Norm Marshall & Associates Inc., which places GM brand vehicles and placed BMW AG’s Z3 roadster in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye.

Advertising and talent agencies have gotten into the game, too. As a result, there are a few organizations trying to measure success of product placement; each implementing its own metrics.

The most highly talked about is Nielsen Media Research’s PlaceViews software, launched in March 2004, which measures product placements in primetime (8 p.m.-11 p.m.) network television shows on a daily basis.

In a sample provided to Ward’s, Nielsen PlaceViews data show Nissan’s Titan pickup truck was placed in the Oct. 10, 2004, episode of “Desperate Housewives” twice, once at 9:51:45 p.m. and again at 9:51:57 p.m.

The duration of the first placement, in which the vehicle was used in a scene with Mike (the hunky plumber), was 15 seconds, says Nielsen. In the second placement, the Titan was used as a prop, shown for two seconds being driven by Mike.

In the Oct. 24 episode, Nielsen indicates the Titan appeared for two seconds parked in the background.

But even Nissan’s Grollman is not sold on this type of measurement.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “A lot of people measure product placement on the amount of time your product is on-air; and to me nothing could be further from the truth of measuring a true, effective product placement.

“Because for me it’s all about right environment, right character, right show. It could be 20 seconds and that could be 10 times more valuable than three minutes. So that’s really tough to measure.”

Williams says people wanting to know how to measure success when it comes to product placement are “asking questions about three years too early.”

However, one thing all seem to agree on is placement needs to be covert and blend seamlessly in the show.

Merrihew cites the use of GMC trucks on PBS’ long-running home improvement show, “This Old House,” as being one of the better examples.

“It’s clear that it’s a GMC, but it’s 100% pure context,” he says of the truck’s appearance on the show. “You know it’s very focused because it’s ‘This Old House’ people, and the truck is appearing recurring throughout the episode, so every time they drive up to a job site, there it is.”

As an example of a too-obvious placement, many have cited the Ford Focus on “American Idol,” which typically is featured in song-and-dance numbers with contestants.

Ford can’t provide numbers, but in the four years it has been a partner with the show, “we have seen a peak in brand awareness and intention around American Idol,” says Michelle Erwin, car marketing communications manager-Ford.

Erwin deems the Idol “brand integration” a success because Ford is “partnering with the show’s producers to create the content. Our integration is well beyond the commercials.”

Chrysler cites statistics that show some of its marketing tactics have been successful and provided a good return on investment.

Julie Roehm, director-marketing communications, a self-professed “(return on investment) fanatic,” says the “Jeep 101” consumer drive event Chrysler held last year at the New York auto show, in which show attendees were able to drive a Jeep, was mentioned by 70% of customers venturing into Jeep dealerships in the New York area following the show.

Because of that, at this year’s Chicago Auto Show, Chrysler had indoor test drives of not just Jeeps, but Chrysler and Dodge models, as well.

“They’re very happy with understanding shopper behavior,” says Merrihew of the auto makers’ reaction to the type of data Compete gathers.

He says auto makers will spend of lot of money on advertising, and will sell vehicles, but in between those practices have a “billion-dollar black hole. So any light that can be shed on (return on marketing investment) that’s regimented (and) quantified benefits them.”

Merrihew says Compete’s data is “non-stop,” gathered down to the day or week or month. The data, which is compiled by tracking online traffic to websites, does not include names or addresses, but “we know you’re person X1295B-7, so we can watch you over time.”

As an example, he says Compete can determine whether a prospective buyer in the New York area shopping a Chevy TrailBlazer, Acura MDX or Toyota 4Runner suddenly begins shopping a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“A Grand Cherokee hangs off a building, and a bunch of people like you suddenly start shopping Grand Cherokees within a week. That’s a pretty good indication that hanging a car off a building got someone to change their behavior,” Merrihew says.

Although many auto makers say they can’t necessarily quantify their return on investment with alternative forms of marketing, they insist the experiences were satisfactory enough that they would do them again, or are at least are pleased to get exposure for their brands.

Jim Farley, vice president of Scion, says as long as buyers are being made aware of the relatively new brand that is good enough for him.

Mark Templin, Lexus vice president-marketing, says the luxury auto maker will “always explore another opportunity” to place vehicles in a film as it did in 2002 with Minority Report because it generated “a lot of attention” for the Japanese luxury brand.

“It’s really difficult (to measure the success of product placement),” says Templin. “People try to measure the number of impressions you get, but you really don’t know what you get out of it. You have to kind of go by a gut feeling of what people tell you; anecdotal evidence.”

Axel Mees, former Audi of America Inc. CEO, says the experience the luxury auto maker had placing the RSQ concept car in last year’s film I, Robot, also is one it gladly would have again.

“I think I, Robot was very successful because we opened a door to the young market with a product that is not yet available. It was pure image,” he says. “We didn’t push a car. We pushed a brand, and that’s what Audi needs in (the U.S.) market.”

So, what is the next frontier in new-age marketing?

Merrihew believes focused, but scalable, advertising is the wave of the future.

“You’re in a car. It’s close to lunch time,” he says. “I’ve validated that you’ve visited McDonald’s before, or you’ve visited Burger King all the time around noon when you’re on (a particular) road. And my satellite is reading where your car is, and I send you some kind of message that McDonald’s is nearby (that appears on the radio display). Or, even better, a billboard that changes just for you.”

If it sounds Orwellian, Merrihew reminds there already is advertising inside vehicles. “Look at the name of your speakers. It probably says Bose,” he says.

Further proof that companies will stop at nothing to get their message across was exemplified by Detroit Pistons guard Richard “Rip” Hamilton in late January and early February.

To market their Assurance TripleTred product, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. paid the basketball player to wear his hair braided in the style of the tire tread. Hamilton won’t reveal how much he was paid. Will the idea sell more Goodyear tires?

The gimmick certainly made millions aware Goodyear was selling a new tire: Even Jay Leno worked it into his “Tonight Show” monologue.

Yes, it is a new age. And it will be more and more difficult to measure exactly how the rubber meets the, uh, road.

– with Drew Winter, Kevin Kelly and John Stoll

cschweinsberg@primediabusiness.com