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Drowning in ads at SXSWi

Marketers are everywhere at the annual digital-culture fest. It sort of makes your face start to melt a little bit.

We hear it's biodegradable, thankfully: Mobile networking service Whrrl has spray-painted its logo on Austin streets. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

AUSTIN--They like to say that at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), everybody acts like they're living in the future, which tends to be a very polite way of saying that everyone treats their smartphones as prosthetic extensions of the body. But if it's indeed the future, it's the future from one of those dystopian films where nearly every millimeter of available physical and digital space is somehow plastered with advertisements.

This happens every year. Marketers and advertisers eager to snare the attention of SXSWi-goers away from the glowing screens of their iPhones and Droids flood the entire city of Austin, and they're aware that everyone else in their industry is going to be doing exactly the same thing. So each year they try harder. And harder. And at SXSWi 2010 I'm concerned that both my eyes and ears are going to start to bleed.

A Tungle coffee cup holder. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

This year, before the festival had even begun, random sidewalks were spray-painted with the logo of Whrrl, an iPhone app that competes with SXSWi celebutante start-ups Foursquare and Gowalla. In the hour-long line (!) to pick up conference badges on Thursday, people weren't just handing out promotional materials, they were walking up and down the line shouting out suggested Twitter hashtags for charitable efforts and contests. (Somebody at a party later snarkily nicknamed one of them "Mr. Tweetplea.")

It goes on: One start-up, Tungle, had put its logo on the coffee-cup holders at a local Starbucks. Still another small company had put ads on the room key holders at one downtown Austin hotel. And somebody clever at SXSWi sponsor Adobe managed to seize the "mayorships" of key venues like the Austin Convention Center on mobile check-in app Foursquare, meaning that anyone who "checks in" to the conference center would be greeted with the Twitter handle "@AdobeSXSW."

I won't even start on the bags given to attendees at check-in, full of promotional fliers, stickers, and pins for everything from Microsoft Silverlight to Technology Review magazine to a local vodka distillery. A handful of people I talked to this year said they were skipping the gift bags altogether. Others said they were only picking them up because of the coveted packs of Stickybits inside.

I get it: SXSWi is huge, and complaining that it's gone "corporate" is so 2008. Attendance has swelled to 12,000 people. More importantly, advertising and marketing are two industries that have been making a crucial and rocky transition into the digital age, so they will invariably have a big, experimental presence at a conference like SXSWi.

But one of the things you have to know about this early-adopter crowd is that the moment they want to tune something out, they do. And they turn right back to their iPhone screens. Come to think about it, there might be ads on there, too.