Matthew McConaughey only takes serious roles and car commercials.

Alright, Alright, Alright, I'll Buy It

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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What do these two commercials have in common? Click the two links, watch and come back. Don't worry, I'll wait; I brought a book.

So what's the answer? If you guessed "They both feature bona fide Hollywood stars," you're on the right track. Hollywood stars have been topping up the old grouch bag for years by making ads, but for a long time, they only made those ads abroad, a fact hilariously dramatized in "Lost in Translation." By the time a movie star made it into a television commercial on this side of the ocean, it was a sign that they'd long since given up any hope of getting another movie role.

That stigma has faded in recent years, in part because you can now watch those foreign commercials on YouTube, so there's not much point in stars pretending that they're not doing it. You can now hear all sorts of stars shilling for all sorts of products. But you rarely see them. So it's interesting that Kevin Spacey and Matthew McConaughey, both fresh from creating acclaimed characters on major television shows, actually appear in these commercials, rather than just doing voice-overs.

What's really interesting, however, is that these two stars are appearing in character. Yet their shows are not explicitly identified -- which suggests that they, and not their studios, are getting the big bucks. Moreover, Spacey is also riffing off his character in the "Call of Duty" video-game series. Director Michael Bay is making similar commercials for Verizon Communications Inc., which aren't direct product tie-ins, but they are obviously drawing on his connection to the "Transformers" film franchise.

Why is this surprising? Because television and movie contracts are usually very restrictive about what stars can do. Take, for example, the James Bond character. Legend has it that Pierce Brosnan had to wear an untied bowtie with his dinner jacket in "The Thomas Crown Affair" because his Bond contract specified that he could not appear in the full rig in any other movie while he was playing Bond. So how did these guys get permission to use their characters, or something very like them, to hawk merchandise?

Maybe because the studios recognized that it's basically free advertising for their properties. I saw that McConaughey commercial everywhere on social media today ... and so did a lot of people who haven't seen "True Detective" but might now be inspired to check it out. (You should, by the way; it's very good.) Kevin Spacey may be selling E*Trade, but I bet he's also selling some Netflix subscriptions.

Of course, there's a danger in this if your character gets overexposed or becomes associated with the wrong brand. I doubt we'll be seeing Bryan Cranston cooking up some Depends undergarments in the meth trailer anytime soon, or Jon Hamm touting the splendid flavor of a new margarine.

But in an era where movie stars are moving to television and television is moving online and all the traditional boundaries are blurring, this sort of cross-pollination is probably healthy, and almost certainly inevitable. Producers might as well sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

One parting thought, however: This is another example of Tyler Cowen's thesis that "Average Is Over." There used to be a hierarchy in Hollywood that started at A-list movie stars and ran downward through the troops of no-name actors who did TV commercials until their ships came in. This could be very lucrative, for a few: Don LaFontaine, aka the Voice of God, aka the Guy Who Did the Voiceovers for All the Movie Trailers, reportedly made $30 million a year at his peak. But in most cases, TV commercials were enough to pay the rent on a modest apartment, not a private island.

Now those jobs are increasingly going to the same stable of actors who get plum movie and television roles. Those lucky few will get richer, while the workaday actors who filled out their incomes with advertising residuals will have to scrape harder at unstable service jobs. Which is a good reminder that breaking down boundaries doesn't always mean that the little guy gets a bigger share.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net