They've been seen on pregnant bellies and tattooed on foreheads. They've invaded bathroom stalls, cellular phones and doctors' offices. They've sneaked their way into movies, TV shows, novels and even Broadway plays.
They are ads and, come September, they'll be more maddeningly ubiquitous than ever.
In the fall, a laser-imprinted CBS eye logo and slogan will make their appearance on eggs in major markets around the country as the network launches 35 million "egg-vertisements" to generate publicity for its fall television lineup. Look for an ad to start appearing on the venerated front page of The Wall Street Journal. And superhero lovers will likely see more product placement inside the pages of Marvel and DC Comics by year's end.
These companies are among those using any means necessary in the hyper-frantic global battle to grab consumer attention and dollars. With more than $270 billion spent on ads in the United States alone last year -- and about $570 billion worldwide -- experts say there's very little ground left that advertisers haven't conquered.
"It's hard to imagine where advertising doesn't appear nowadays," says Erik Gordon, a Johns Hopkins University marketing professor. "You can make an argument that the whole world has become an ad. Nothing is sacred anymore. It even appears in my dreams, my bad dreams."
Advertising in dreams doesn't seem so far-fetched considering the lengths and depths to which companies have gone to call attention to a product. Billboards have gotten bigger. Television commercials have gotten louder, brighter, edgier and more manic. Advertising companies increasingly push the boundaries, whether selling by shock like Volkswagen's car crash ads or sex like Unilever's Axe body spray, whose ads often show a clean-smelling man getting molested by hot women.
As traditional advertising in newspapers, TV and magazines fell short of reaching various target audiences such as teenagers over the past couple decades, experts say, the quest to reach consumers became more innovative and, some might argue, invasive.
While some methods were noticeable, for example, product placement of brand names in your favorite TV shows and movies, others were far more sneaky, such as buzz marketing campaigns that hire hundreds of everyday people to talk up a particular product by word-of-mouth.
In the case of ads on eggs, CBS used a new technology and applied it to age-old marketing concepts. The network partnered with Illinois-based EggFusion by sponsoring the company's special laser- coded expiration dates on eggs sold by grocers. Hoping to reach viewers where they're least likely to expect it, CBS has used unusual partnerships with other companies in the past such as Aquacell Water Coolers to hawk its shows.
It's unclear, according to CBS officials, whether printed eggs with groan-inducing quips such as "CSI: Crack the Case on CBS" will show up in Maryland.
Big or small, targeting young or old, in-your-face or more subtle, ads appear inescapable.
These days, ad space is sold by the pixel, the tiny dots of light and color on a computer screen, and in video games such as Microsoft Xbox Live's Project Gotham Racing 3, which showcases Cadillac to the elusive teenage male consumer.
People sell ad space on various body parts, such as the woman in Utah who tattooed GoldenPalace.com on her forehead last year for $10,000. The gambling site also paid a Connecticut woman $15,500 to name her newborn daughter Golden Palace Benedetto.
"The problem that we, as advertisers, have is breaking through the clutter," says Mark Levit, managing partner at Partners & Levit Inc., an advertising agency in New York. "There is so much advertising on so many different media that we constantly seek to find new ways to deliver our messages. It's a challenge."
Such is the challenge that even so-called new advertising news seems old. This month, Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways plans to sell ad space on its air-sickness bags. Virgin Atlantic covered that queasy area last year when it stocked flights with 100,000 Star Wars-themed air-sickness bags.
Marvel and DC Comics have signed lucrative deals with heavy-hitters like General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac, Nike Inc. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge to either develop story lines around specific products or weave more brand names into scenes. Both companies have included some product placement in comics for decades.
Even the Journal's foray into front-page ads in September to boost its bottom line isn't new. The Journal ran front-page ads from the first day of publication in 1889 until March 29, 1946. More recently, USA Today and the Financial Times have already been there, done that for years.