NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- How much work does it take to create a piece of programming that looks like a familiar show but also blasts out a marketer's message? More than you might think, given the number of parties involved. So imagine, if you will, the work required to create about 50 such promotional pieces -- 43 minutes' worth of content -- to play out across four different cable networks.
Unilever is ramping up promotion for its new line of Axe hair products by running a bevy of nontraditional promotions across Viacom's Comedy Central, Spike TV, VH1 and MTV. The ads resemble everything from comedians on VH1's "Best Week Ever" talking about the problems inherent in bad hair to video vignettes crafted specifically for Spike's male audience. They will all push viewers to tune in to a March 15 block of prime-time programming on MTV. It will feature a mock telethon addressing the problem of guys' bad hair, as well as other pieces of promotion, during commercial breaks that surround "The College Humor Show," "Fantasy Factor" and "Nitro Circus."
"This is pretty much the largest integration across our networks that we've ever done before," said John Shea, exec VP-integrated marketing and brand partnerships at MTV Networks.
Past pieces of programming
In the past, Unilever has created clever pieces of programming designed to boost other Axe products. Among those efforts were "The Gamekillers," a February 2006 reality special on MTV that ostensibly focused on forces that could keep a guy from attracting a girl but was really designed to promote an Axe antiperspirant. "Exposing the Order of the Serpentine" ran on Spike the same month and took on the look of a news expose, even as it helped burnish a product known as Axe Snake Peel Shower Scrub. Those efforts garnered attention, but they were, like many pieces of so-called branded entertainment, simple one-offs. This time, Unilever's Axe wants to reach a broader audience.
"This is the introduction of Axe into hair care, shampoo, conditioner and styling, and so we're talking about a major introduction campaign," said David Rubin, director-Unilever hair marketing. Traditional commercials will also air across MTV Networks, along with the sponsored pieces of content. "This is a very large launch," he added.
The effort isn't aimed only at men but at women, too. Unilever's research showed that 85% of guys think their hair looks pretty good, but less than half of girls agree that guys have great hair. The campaign is "about getting lots of people to participate in the discussion," Mr. Rubin said. Relying on longer but less ubiquitous pieces of content would make it "harder to get the total eyeballs."
Tailored to specific audience
The content pieces on each channel are tailored to the specific audience watching. Spike will place its "Men of Action" characters -- guys who spoof famous action moments in already existing promos -- in Axe's service (bad hair gets in their way). Other promos shown around Spike's airing of "Star Wars" will feature two guys who debate whether the "Dark Side" is better than the "Rebel Side," and find that Axe can help solve the problem. On Comedy Central, coverage of a "hair crisis" will be the focus of a group of mock newscasts, said Dario Spina, senior VP-integrated marketing for Comedy Central and Spike TV.
On VH1, comedians from the popular show "Best Week Ever" will bring up the problems of dealing with hair in the show itself, which will also have content pieces in commercial breaks.
MTV Networks and Unilever have been working on this package since the upfront, executives from both sides said. Collaborating early on was essential to making the idea work properly, because it involves devising different pieces of content aimed at different audiences, yet is trying to roll them all into a bigger crowd for MTV on March 15.
As such, the effort also points to an emerging technique advertisers are tapping: They have to dig in deep among niche crowds in order to attract a bigger audience. "We are building several phases of this to build awareness amongst our individual set of audiences, and then ultimately we wanted to ride that swell, if you will, to push to MTV's big reveal" of the faux telethon and other promotional pieces, Mr. Spina said.
Media working more closely with clients
MTV Networks crafted all of the promotional pieces, another sign that media outlets are working more closely with their clients on tasks that normally an ad agency might handle. While Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Axe's agency, worked on the traditional 30-second spots that accompany the effort, MTV Networks created the new-fangled promotions. In recent weeks, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has created ads for Pepsi, and NBC Universal has made available a panel of prominent women to help clients address issues regarding marketing to females.
As the tough economy continues, media outlets may see opportunity to get additional ad revenue and secure relationships with advertisers by helping them craft promotions. After all, who knows Spike TV and MTV better than the people who run it? Letting MTV Networks "put their own voice to it just adds more credibility to us," Mr. Rubin said. "In order to allow that, we had to make sure the point came through, but were willing to step back a little bit."