Cisco Reports for Duty in 'GI Joe'

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

"GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra"was the weekend's big, box office winner with over $50 million in ticket sales, but there's another big winner as well, thanks to some creative product placement.

Sharp-eyed movie-goers probably took notice of the ever, oh-so-cool, holographic video-conferencing technology inside the Joe's headquarters, called "The Pit," courtesy of Cisco Systems . Make no mistake: Cisco sees big things from its TelePresence technology and the GI Joe product placement is a natural extension of the markets it's trying to reach, and the technology showcase of which it is trying to be a part.

Still, as good as Cisco's TelePresence innovations are, the GI Joe appearance was hardly a prototype of anything in Cisco's product pipeline. (Just being clear.) But the tech was neat, and the high profile part Cisco plays in the film was pretty cool, too.


For the better part of a year, Cisco has been touting its Telepresence.

This is certainly not your father's teleconferencing, but entire rooms, with wrap-around screens, high-def cameras, excellent audio, and coordinated furniture so that when you step into one of these facilities, and counterparts do the same somewhere else in the world, you do indeed have the sense that you're sitting in the same place.

The equipment and rooms aren't cheap, anywhere from $50,000 to a half-million dollars, depending on your configuration and how many of these things your company is setting up. But in these lean economic times where travel budgets are among the first things to get slashed, TelePresence has struck quite the fiscal nerve. In fact, just this past weekend, the San Jose Mercury News ran a lengthy story on the topic, reporting that Cisco itself had cut its travel budget from a whopping $750 million a year to $240 million. Hewlett-Packard , a Cisco competitor on next-gem teleconferencing, says it cut its travel expenses by 30 percent between 2007 and 2008 and should do even better this year.

Cisco says 300 customers have bought its TelePresence conferencing systems. HP isn't disclosing its sales, but counts Advanced Micro Devices and Nokia as big customers.

Cisco's product placement in GI Joe continues a noticeable trend at the company, which I'm told has a pretty sophisticated group looking for media opportunities for Cisco products. And that's important for Cisco, an enterprise company bellwether as it tries to appeal more to a consumer audience, especially with its recent acquisition of Pure Digital, the maker of the Flip digital video cameras.

The company has already had pretty high profile turns in Fox's "24," NBC's "The Office," "X-Men," "CSI," "Grey's Anatomy," "Heroes," and earlier this summer in "Transformers: Rise of the Fallen." Think of this as the consumer-ification of the company.

"It's about our typical buying demographic," Cisco spokesman David McCulloch tells me. "Largely male, in their early 20s to mid-30s. They love these shows."

And it's cost effective. McCulloch won't tell me how much Cisco spent for its appearance in GI Joe, but does admit it's a "frugal company at heart." Cisco's team "recognized, we have much more creative ways of partnering with media corporations to get more bang for our buck," by partnering directly with producers rather than buying traditional advertising time and space like commercials and newspaper ads.

"We call it a 360 approach: What can we do that involves your web properties, viewers on line, that involves the program," McCulloch says. "Instead of just hoping you get everything in one 30-second spot, we have - and this is marketing-speak, 'multiple touch points' with the same customer through a variety of channels." It's subtle, too. Or supposed to be. Let the message seep into a viewer's consciousness instead of beating them over the head. Intriguing.

Product placement is certainly nothing new as a way for advertisers to reach more of an audience in a different way. The trouble is if more companies, like Cisco, choose this route not as an extension but as a replacement to traditional advertising, companies like the parent of this one might be in for some significant changes.

And it certainly works in GI Joe. The Cisco logo is prominent. And the communications technology is intrinsic to the story. And hell, I feel like I got tricked into extending the Cisco marketing dollar even further into this blog, er, "touch point." Damn! Foiled again.

(Nice work, Cisco!)

Questions? Comments?