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At SXSW, brands take over

This year's interactive festival is dominated by marketers and corporations with high-priced agendas. Even Oreo cookies are part of the mix.

American Airlines hopes to convince attendees to see the new, hipper side of the company.
Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- Meander through the halls of the Austin Convention Center or traverse the city's surrounding streets and you'll soon realize that nothing at South by Southwest Interactive, once the trade show of startups and geeks, is without a sponsor.

In the past few years, big, consumer-facing brands have traversed down south, and, with elaborate setups and fancy door prizes, are drowning out the little guys. This year in particular.

For instance, Oreo, the now on-trend brand that acquired a bit of social-media fame with its savvy Super Bowl tweet, is lining up attendees at a mega conference-hall kiosk because it's giving away "power shots," aka USB phone chargers.

Oreo lines up patrons with the promise of free cell phone chargers and a green screen to pose in front of. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

"The original posse is probably aghast at what [SXSW] has turned into," Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group, told me.

Solis is here to promote his new book, "What's the Future of Business?" He's also co-hosting a party and blogger lounge with TechSet partner Stephanie Agresta, the global director of social media and digital for MSL Group. Solis and Agresta, both longstanding members of the blogger digerati, are straddling the very fine line between tech celebrity and brand-pusher.

Their blogger lounge, a regular fixture at SXSW, is officially known as "The Samsung TechSet Blogger Lounge." The lounge offers bloggers Wi-Fi, tables, power, food, beverages, and entertainment encased within an ornately decorated, Samsung-branded room.

Samsung has sponsored the lounge for three years running, Agresta said, and the brand mainly hopes to help attendees alleviate conference pain points. Inside the lounge, there's no mistaking Samsung logos, products, and messaging. The branding is everywhere, but the packed room of people here doesn't seem to mind Samsung's intrusion into their geeky world.

The Samsung TechSet Blogger Lounge prior to opening. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Some, like serial entrepreneur Ben Metcalfe, a man who despised Pepsi's "disgusting" stage two years ago, even seem to appreciate Samsung's efforts. Metcalfe chastised Pepsi for shoving its brand in attendees' faces but complimented Samsung for creating an inviting setting.

Matthew Moller, in charge of digital engagement for Samsung, should be pleased. He said the company is making the investment to passively reach influencers like Metcalfe. The brand is interested in developing relationships with bloggers and others in the digerati, he said. The Samsung blogger's lounge has been such a hit, he said, that the company has created similarly modeled lounges at other trade shows such as CES.

Samsung is also a sponsor of CNET's Lounge at Friends Bar, where branded posters, charging stations, and cocktail napkins await visitors, along with drinks.

3M's virtual presenter Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Samsung Mobile, a separate division with a big presence at the show, also hopes to make a splash this year. The brand is sponsoring free pedicab rides, operated by Uber, for all Samsung Galaxy owners. There's also the Samsung Galaxy Experience at Coppertank, a separate venue for free goodies and product demos.

"Things are definitely more stuntier this year," Agresta admitted. "But the audience is interested in cool, fun, and emerging tech ... and the audience will let you know when they're not interested."

Brian Zisk, executive producer of the San Francisco Tech Summit, said Oreo was one of the brands doing it wrong, though he added that "most brands are doing it wrong." Oreo's fourth-floor setup, designed to promote its new "Grab & Go" packaging, includes a green screen, with various backgrounds, for people to pose in front of and is giving patrons the aforementioned power shots. But Zisk finds Oreo's setup particularly unappealing. "It reminds me how disgusting Oreos are."

SXSW attendees wandering the halls of the Austin Convention Center have also likely seen 3M's virtual presenter, which is basically a hologram of a hot chick in a 3M tee. Everything about the projection has 3M technology, a booth representative said. Our hologrammic hottie prattles on about things no one is listening to -- they're all too busy taking pictures. Why bother?

The Esurance "glove box" at the Austin Convention Center. Attendees can scan a QR code to win a prize. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Esurance is also going with a look-at-me -- actually, a you-can't-miss-me -- approach. The online car insurance company has set up an arresting display in the hopes that patrons will stop by, complete a survey, and participate in daily giveaways. Something dramatic -- think smoke -- happens when a person wins, of course. Though the booth was eerily quiet when I walked by, roughly 400 people signed up to participate Thursday, so that's something.

Even American Airlines, technically the official airline of SXSW, has a kitschy nook at the convention center meant to educate the influencers here about the company's latest innovations in tech-enabled air travel. The brand's hook includes flashy cell phone charging stations you can access with a credit card, a massage station, and a big screen that displays social-media mentions of #newamerican.

Showtime, a subsidiary of CNET"s parent company CBS, is an official sponsor. As such, the premium cable network is hosting a daily lounge at the W with cocktails, appetizers, and entertainment. The brand is also offering a screening of the new series "Ray Donovan."

The list goes on. Even the unassuming press room, where this particular story originated, is not without loud messaging. GoToMeeting apparently wants us journalists to keep its online meeting service top of mind. An obnoxiously sized banner was being put up while I was in the room. The act, which was eventually aborted, ironically required members of the media sitting in adjacent chairs to temporarily relocate to get their work done.

The erecting of a giant banner in the press room. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Behind the scenes, the brand invasion at SXSW is every bit the war you'd expect from businesses hoping to edge out their competitors in the attention department. Because of Chevy's participation as an official sponsor, Ford was not able to participate in an official capacity. The same goes for USA Networks and Red Bull, who were locked out from organizing official SXSW parties and events because of official sponsors Showtime and Monster, respectively.

Brands jockeying for attention are hard to miss, but less obvious is whether they're making an impact. Attendees do seem mesmerized by bright lights and bold displays, but it's the kind of fleeting attention that fades minutes after the tweet capturing it all is posted to followers.