Backlash simmers against commercials at the movies. Companies pay millions for spots, but research warns there's a price in moviegoer satisfaction

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated January 10, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Illustration by Stephen Kroninger

Friday night, the local multiplex. You’ve arrived half an hour early to be sure of a good seat, and now, after putting your cell on vibrate and settling in with your popcorn, the lights dim. It’s time to drop your worldly cares and surrender yourself to the magic of…ads. Ads for Nintendo DS,, Mazda, Hershey’s Kisses (with caramel!), Red Stripe, and Olympus digital cameras. By the time the film finally starts, 20 minutes after it was scheduled to begin, your popcorn is gone. Your ass hurts. Which movie did you come to see again?

During its annual orgy of awards-season self-congratulation, Hollywood likes to revive that comforting old Cinema Paradiso image of the movie theater as a palace of dreams. In reality, today’s multiplex often feels more like a Trumpian palace of cold-eyed hucksterism. The moment we step through the doors, we’re bombarded with advertising messages on plasma screens, kiosks, posters, soda cups, and popcorn buckets. Phony radio stations pipe soundtrack cuts and flavorless pop ”hits” into the lobby, the parking lot, even the bathrooms.

In the era of TiVo and Internet pop-up-ad blockers, moviegoers are fast becoming the last easy marks, and selling them out to advertisers has become a booming business, with ad revenues of at least $356 million in 2003, according to the Cinema Advertising Council trade group, up 37 percent from the year before. To advertisers, you’re not merely a movie buff; you’re a collection of buying habits and leisure interests begging to be studied and exploited. According to one leading cinema ad company, for example, frequent moviegoers are 30 percent more likely than the average American to have spent $300 or more on patio and lawn furniture in the past year, and 135 percent more likely to enjoy the occasional game of racquetball. And you thought you just liked Will Ferrell movies.

When ads first hit theaters in the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear boos accompanied by projectile Raisinets. Allowing commercials in movies felt like a violation of a cherished refuge, akin to putting video poker machines in houses of worship. Since then, ad boosters have diligently worked to redefine on-screen advertising as ”preshow entertainment.” Hence, we’re barraged with movie-trivia games sponsored by magazines (EW, for instance) and soft-drink companies (”Seepin Leswys is Wesley Snipes scrambled?hmm, I’m craving a Coke”). Commercials are growing increasingly lavish, like the Chanel No. 5 ad directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman; reps insist it is, in fact, ”a film.”

Although boisterous displeasure has largely died down to resigned grumbling, many moviegoers still deplore the deepening penetration of advertising into theaters (hello Nike, AT&T, Hallmark, and FedEx!) and would love nothing better than to bite the hand that force-feeds them. In one recent poll conducted by InsightExpress, 53 percent of moviegoers surveyed said they want theaters to stop showing advertising; 27 percent said they were likely to attend fewer movies because of the ads. Only 15 percent said they actually enjoy them. Confronted with such numbers, advertisers tout stats that cinema ads are six times more ”impactful” than TV ads; of course, that could simply mean that, blown up to 40 feet and booming in surround sound, they’re six times more irritating.