NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For two seasons, the shelves of Greens & Grains, the fictional grocery store on TBS's "10 Items or Less," have played host to a smattering of real brands, including I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and Axe body spray. For the show's third-season premiere Jan. 6, the store will be visited by its biggest product placements yet: Hellmann's Light Mayonnaise and the new Vaseline Man.
The common thread for all these real-life products is Unilever, the package-goods company that has partnered with Turner Entertainment's sales and marketing group through the years on a series of commercial-busting branded-entertainment projects, including "10 Items" integrations and short-form series such as 2006's "Love Bites" for Sunsilk hair products.
Plugging the products
For the "10 Items" season premiere, Unilever is presenting the 30-minute sitcom commercial-free and hawking its Vaseline Man and Hellman's Light products. Star and co-creator John Lehr, who plays grocery-store owner Leslie Pool, is seen extolling the virtues of both products during key moments of the show with a self-aware, over-the-top delivery reminiscent of clueless boss Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, on NBC's "The Office."(Apparently the show's similarities to the NBC sitcom were not lost on TBS's programming team: New episodes of "10 Items" will air Tuesdays at 11 p.m. after "Office" reruns at 10:30.)
During one scene, Leslie thanks Vaseline Man for curing a particularly irksome itch. In another, he's seen marveling at how Hellmann's Light tastes just as good as regular mayonnaise, if not better.
Since the premiere is also being presented commercial-free, Mr. Lehr will appear in a pair of network promos on TBS and TNT. In one ad, he's seen with bottles of Hellmann's and Vaseline Man strapped to his shoulders, exclaiming, "It's such a relief to be able to do TV without commercials!"
Rob Master, Unilever's North American media director, said the company always seeks out authenticity when integrating its brands into entertainment programs, something "10 Items" could offer in spades with its heavily improvised script. "The wonderful thing about the relationship and this experience is the output. We're willing to give up some control of the message if we can empower them to take on our brand," he said. "It would be kind of odd if it wasn't a real product."
Linda Yaccarino, Turner Entertainment's exec VP-sales and marketing, said the Turner sales team has been looking to partner with a marketer on a full-episode sponsorship of an original series, and Unilever's openness to creative collaboration quickly made it the top contender. "Unilever is very savvy and experienced in pushing the boundaries of commercial innovation. ... They really let the creativity of the show take the lead. We'd love to do it again."
The TBS deal is just the latest in a long string of entertainment-based marketing efforts Unilever and its media agency, Mindshare, have sought out as part of their reinvented upfront-negotiation process. Since 2000, the company has used the biggest TV selling season of the year to swap brand stories with TV networks and show creators to find ways to tell its products' stories in unique ways.
'Pretty natural fit'
Melissa Shapiro, managing director-national broadcast for Mindshare, had two stories in mind when selecting Vaseline Man and Hellmann's Light for the "10 Items" integrations. "For Vaseline Man, it's a new-product launch, so having it in a grocery store was a pretty natural fit, and the demo was right. In terms of Hellmann's, the message to get across was that Hellmann's Light is actually delicious, and you can't believe it," she said. "Finding opportunities within the market for multiple brands is a real challenge, so this was one of our bigger successes."
As for the long-term effectiveness of the "10 Items" promotion, Mr. Master said Unilever has an in-house media-research team that will work to track the awareness and engagement with the integrations. "But at the end of the day, we're in the business of selling more products," he said. "The equation to get there is to get people to become aware of your product and like your product. Whatever we can do to get in consumers' consideration set is obviously paramount, but we recognize the importance of engaging consumers that will spur them to actually buy our product."