|A revamped Ask.com looks to close the gap with rival Google by shining a spotlight on its services through the reality adventure series 'Treasure Hunters.'
In the show, which kicks off with a two-hour premiere June 18, teams of contestants travel across the U.S. and Europe to solve cryptic codes and puzzles in order to obtain clues to locate a hidden treasure. What the actual treasure is will be revealed at the end of the show's run. The series moves to its regular time slot on Monday nights starting June 19.
The teams will use Ask.com's improved map and encyclopedia tools to locate and learn about historical destinations and artifacts as part of the adventure reality series. Contestants will also carry Motorola phones, drive Toyota Tundra trucks and Highlander SUVs, make travel arrangements through Orbitz.com, use Dell computers and services from Visa as well.
The integration in "Treasure Hunters" comes as Ask.com is in the midst of rebranding itself. The company formerly operated as Ask Jeeves, but renamed itself in late February. Upon the relaunch, the site, owned by Barry Diller's IAC/InterActive Corp., introduced new features including an easier-to-use interface and enhanced tools to locate maps, generate more detailed driving and walking directions and search for images, including aerial photography. Other additions include the ability to preview Web sites while searching, a new dictionary, weather and local search functions, as well as an encyclopedia that displays content from Wikipedia, Houghton Mifflin and others.
Ask.com executives have said they're aggressively pursuing ways to let consumers know that there is an alternative to Google. And they're hoping that partnering up with Hollywood productions will help them spread that message to the company's target audience of 18- to 44-year-olds and heavy Internet users who rely on search engines to find information.
"We're always on the lookout for opportunities," said Greg Ott, Ask.com's VP-marketing. "We have a number of unique features and wanted a way to show how they help people get better information faster."
When it comes to branded entertainment opportunities, the company looks for integrations that can demonstrate the search engine's features and be part of a solution. Last fall, the site's search function was used to locate images that could be turned into tattoos in the TLC reality series "Miami Ink" that revolves around a tattoo parlor.
"Treasure Hunters" appealed to the company because "from a branded integration standpoint, it enabled our product to be extremely textually relevant," Mr. Ott said. "We saw a good fit with what we were trying to do with our brand."
And it fit a need for the producers, as well.
"We knew it would be impossible for the cast to know everything to solve the clues and puzzles," said Jak Severson, an executive producer on "Treasure Hunters" and CEO of Madison Road Entertainment. "So we gave them Ask.com as a tool."
In addition to its on-screen presence, Ask.com will enable viewers to play along with contestants and download clues and facts of their own about the artifacts found in the show.
Ask.com's relaunch has already started paying off. In February, the search engine started gaining ground on Google, increasing market share from 5.3% a year ago to 6%, according to ComScore Networks. Google, however, is still the dominant search engine by far. As of February, it led with 42% market share in the U.S., up from 36% a year earlier. Second-ranked Yahoo fell to nearly 28%, down from 31% a year ago. Ask.com ranks fifth behind Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and Time Warner's AOL.
As for the other marketers in "Treasure Hunters," Motorola outfitted the show's 10 teams of three contestants with equipment, including the company's Razr and E815 handsets, Bluetooth headsets and the Ojo video phone, which they will use to keep in touch with host Laird Macintosh.
While Motorola phones have appeared in countless scripted shows, including the current seasons of "24" and "Alias," "Treasure Hunters" marks the first time the company has been involved with a reality show.
"It's our first foray into this genre," said David Pinsky, director of entertainment marketing for Motorola. "We've been approached by all of the reality shows, but some were highly inappropriate or some didn't make any sense for us. ['Treasure Hunters'] was a great opportunity. It's an intelligent show. It's not just about running around doing crazy tasks or eating something you'd never want to put in your mouth. Our phones play an integral role within the show. They're a tool through which the contestants get their clues to move from one position to the next."
While Motorola is one of the show's partners, the series opted not to bring on board a wireless carrier because the producers were more interested in getting hardware into the hands of the contestants.
"Motorola is ubiquitous," Mr. Severson said. "Their hardware was exactly what the show needed. Besides, it's hard to convey the message of a carrier. It usually doesn't come off very well."
Among the other partners, Toyota Motor Sales USA provided the production with Tundra trucks and Highlander SUVs. In addition to the concept for the series, the show's focus on "Americana" and "the heartland" appealed to the Japanese carmaker, which is trying to make its pickups appeal to Middle America.
What didn't hurt was that Toyota had recently worked with Madison Road, which integrated the carmaker's small Yaris sedan and hatchback into episodes of Fox's comedy sketch show "MadTV."
"It always helps when the broker is also the producer," said Rob Donnell, president of branded-entertainment agency Brand Arc, which reps Toyota in Hollywood. "You've always got a direct connection to the producer. It's better to have that direct communication."
Rounding out the marketers, Orbitz.com will provide travel services to teams, while a security feature from Visa will help unlock a puzzle.
Most of the marketers are planning an online campaign to promote their affiliation with the series through their own Web sites, as well as with NBC.com.
Madison Road Entertainment created the roles in the show for brands and worked closely with NBC's ad sales group to price and sell the integrations to the right marketers.
"It was a very collaborative process that went on for many months in the effort to get the mix perfect," Mr. Severson said. "Everyone was involved -- the producers, NBC programming, ad sales and the network’s digital division."
Although specific dollar amounts have not been disclosed, deal points varied between a flat integration fee to financials determined around the level of exposure and the ratings that the show's episodes will generate. Dell's placement was part of a trade out deal with NBC.
Madison Road has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for branded entertainment, having worked with Mark Burnett Productions on integrating marketers into "The Apprentice." "Treasure Hunters" is the first show under its belt as a production company. It is producing the show together with Imagine Television ("24"), Magical Elves Productions ("Project Greenlight") and NBC Universal Television Studio.
For branded entertainment to truly work, a brand's involvement must improve the quality of a show or not be in the show at all. And "Treasure Hunters" is no exception, Mr. Severson said. The brands serve as the tools for the contestants to find their clues.
"We looked at what the show needed first," Mr. Severson said. "Those are the advertisers we sought out. We weren't forcing the advertiser into it. The advertiser became a very important part of how certain aspects were solved. Contestants are told which resources they can use and they used them however they wanted. Everything has a purpose within the show."