|Courteney Cox's character on FX's 'Dirt' drove a Pontiac Solstice in the series premiere thanks to a product-placement deal with the GM division that has been extended for eight episodes.
Then the valet pulls up with her car, a black Pontiac Solstice GXP convertible.
The appearance of the Solstice is no accident. It's part of a product-placement and marketing deal with General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division that allowed the network to present the show without commercials, similar to how Ford Motor Co. has sponsored commercial-free episodes of "24" and "Alias" in the past.
It's also no accident that FX did the deal with an automaker. Car companies, traditionally the biggest TV advertisers, are pushing the marketing envelope to attract customers and doing some of the most inventive advertising deals with TV networks. The networks in turn are offering sponsorships, product placement, video on demand, online video and other advertising enhancements to avoid losing those auto ad dollars.
"There's a couple of ways of breaking through the clutter and one of them is to eliminate the clutter and leave yourself as the only one standing," Mark-Hans Richer, marketing director for Pontiac, said of the "Dirt" sponsorship. "There's nothing wrong with commercials. Clearly we still air commercials, but the definition of commercial and even what advertising is has expanded greatly."
The auto companies spent $9.9 billion on TV advertising in 2005, compared to only $422.1 million on the internet. But with technology making it easier for viewers to zap commercials, they're turning to new media for accountability and efficiency. GM increased its online spending 67% to $66.1 billion, and Pontiac last year launched a new model, the G5, with online ads only.
While other industries are also testing new forms of advertising, automakers' willingness to experiment has a lot to do with the nature of their product: There's a big difference between trying to get someone to sample a $2.50 hamburger and getting them to buy a $25,000 vehicle.
"Automotive has unique challenges because of the size of the transaction we're asking for and the clutter in the category," Mr. Richer said. "So it does lend itself to more creative marketing because the competition is so much stronger and because the barrier to success is so much higher."
That means it's important for traditional TV networks to forge close ties with their auto clients. At FX, President John Landgraf built a relationship with Dino Bernacchi, who until recently was Pontiac's advertising manager and was promoted to a corporate position overseeing product integration for GM.
"He and I formed a strong relationship early on, and those conversations and that relationship resulted in very significant integration," Mr. Landgraf said.
In the initial "Dirt" sponsorship deal, the car was supposed to appear in three episodes. Now it will appear in eight. And the executives' relationship is working both ways: Mr. Bernacchi suggested one story line for the series in which material found in the trunk of the Solstice plays a key role. That episode will also feature the car in a chase scene.
Those appearances can have more horsepower than a spot, Mr. Landgraf said.
"Pontiac's ads are excellent, but when you take an actress like Courteney Cox, who plays a character, Lucy Spiller, who is complicated, successful, beautiful, glamorous, lives in this very high-end, alluring world of Hollywood, and you make the Solstice, which is a beautiful car, an extension of the character, you're doing something different."
"Dirt" made its debut Jan. 2 with 2.4 million adults 18 to 49 tuning in and 3.7 million viewers overall.
After last week's premiere, Pontiac's Mr. Richer seemed pleased.
"We're very encouraged by the initial results from the show's ratings the first night and very happy with the partnership with FX and the folks who are running the show."
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Jon Lafayette is a reporter for Television Week.