|Not only was it tops in ratings, but 'American Idol' also heads M&V's list of best branded-entertainment deals so far this year.
THE FIVE BEST
1. Coke, Cingular and Ford Partnerships With "American Idol"
The deal: Coke, Cingular and Ford, which have been involved with Fox's "American Idol" talent contest since its launch, returned for a sixth season.
The result: It's highly unusual for a TV show to grow its year-to-year ratings, as "Idol" has done, and the marketers that bought into the program early, and for as little as $10 million, have seen exponential return on their investment. Season six pulled in 42 million viewers for the final half-hour of the competition.
Why it worked: Sponsors increased their in-show and off-air activities and saw tangible benefits from it. For example, Ford executives, promoting the Fusion sedan, said the show increased their message recall "far above expectations." An IAG study they commissioned found that 80% of consumers who saw the weekly music videos during the Tuesday night telecasts, which featured contestants and Ford vehicles, noted Ford's involvement in the program. Even better, 25% of consumers said seeing or hearing about Ford during the wildly popular show greatly enhanced their impressions of the brand. Ford added a contest on the "Idol" website that included contestants' music videos. The show's host, Ryan Seacrest, pointed viewers to the site to enter the sweepstakes. As a result, fans watched more than 1 million videos on the site, and a few hundred thousand entered the win-a-Fusion contest.
Meanwhile, Cingular Wireless became even more ingrained as an integral part of the show with its text-message voting. Cingular recorded 64.5 million text messages during the "Idol" season, up from 41.5 million the previous season.
And Coke, with its focus on mobile marketing and pop music, made its presence better known within the content of the show itself, well beyond the ever-present Coke cups on the judges' table. The Red Room moved from behind the stage to above it, where it was constantly visible. Digital logos and other graphics were added on screen. The marketer added a "behind the scenes" page at americanidol.com and created "Idol"-related products and prizes at mycokerewards.com. Coke executives said they are tracking awareness but didn't disclose results.
What's next: Coke, Cingular and Ford are so pleased with the show that they're considering renewing their deals for next season, even if the alliance costs them as much as $25 million. Fox and Freemantle Media North America might add a fourth sponsor to the mix for next season, and discussions are ongoing with fast-food, electronics and health-and-beauty marketers.
2. Brands Linked to Bravo's "Project Runway"
The deal: L'Oreal Paris, Banana Republic, Elle magazine, TRESemme, Saturn, Orbitz and other marketers strutted down "Project Runway" during the second season of Bravo's hit reality show.
The result: "Project Runway," produced by Miramax Entertainment and hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum, became cable channel Bravo's most successful franchise during its second season earlier this year. It drew an average 1.7 million viewers, up 59% from season one. The finale this spring pulled in 3.4 million fans, making it the most watched show in the network's history. It improved the numbers from the first season by 102% in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic.
Viewer interaction with the show via digital and internet platforms was tremendous. The show had 2.2 million unique visitors and 87 million page views on BravoTV.com. Tim Gunn, chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design and the contestants' mentor, generated 9.1 million page views on his "Tim's Take" blog, while his podcasts garnered 600,000 downloads.
Why it worked: The show continues to be a major showcase for marketer tie-ins, and with ratings only increasing, the platform is expected to become even more valuable. Brands are woven into the show in a way that should make other reality shows take note. The budding design mavens, for instance, had to create an outfit in one episode for Mattel's My Scene Barbie. Not only were the designs interesting, but the marketer was embedded in a graceful way, with a Mattel executive on hand to critique the outfits while touting the Barbie brand persona. All of the 3,300 limited-edition dolls sold out. In another challenge, winning designers saw their dresses sold in Banana Republic stores and online.
What's next: All but Banana Republic have returned for the show's just-launched third season, and a number of other high-profile brands such as Macy's have latched onto the fashion-design free-for-all, looking for valuable exposure to the show’s devoted young fan base.
3. Jeep and Ducati Alliances With "Tomb Raider"
The deal: After partnering with Paramount Pictures' "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," DaimlerChrysler's Jeep and Italian motorcycle maker Ducati continued their association with the gun-toting adventurer in the video game "Tomb Raider: Legend."
The result: Jeep's Wrangler and Commander sport utility vehicles and Ducati motorcycles are seamlessly integrated into the game and the animated sequences in between levels of Eidos Interactive's seventh installment of the franchise, showing off the abilities of the vehicles as they maneuver across rugged and exotic terrains. Ducati appears in the game's more heroic moments, with the thrill-seeking Lara Croft using the bikes to leap from buildings or escape villains, who drive Commanders. The Croft character also wears a leather biker jacket with Ducati emblazoned down the front.
Why it worked: Significant exposure. After "Cradle of Life" flopped, killing the chances of any future filmed adventures, and a disappointing game was released shortly thereafter, "Legend" has breathed new life into the "Tomb Raider" franchise. The game has become the fastest-selling title in the series, selling more than 3 million units worldwide across all gaming platforms since its release in April, with 401,000 units sold in the U.S., according to the NPD Group. Critics are hailing it as one of the franchise’s best titles, not only for its sophisticated graphics but also for returning Lara Croft to her roots, exploring ancient tombs in exotic locations around the world to search for artifacts and solve puzzles along the way. The cost to the brands: only several hundred thousand dollars.
4. Toyota Yaris' Affiliation With "MADtv"
The deal: As part of the launch of its new Yaris, Toyota Motor Sales USA partnered with Fox's "MADtv" to promote the small car that rolled into dealerships in May. The deal included integrating the Yaris into five pre-taped skits that starred series regulars Ike Barinholtz and Bobby Lee and followed their comedic misadventures as they traveled around Los Angeles in the vehicles.
The result: In the first six-minute sketch, which aired Jan. 28, Mr. Barinholtz and Mr. Lee taught fellow cast member Jordan Peele, a New Yorker, how to drive. In the second skit, Mr. Barinholtz and Mr. Lee took dates to Hollywood hotspot Big Wangs. Hilarity ensued. As part of a running gag, the cars in the skits are borrowed from celebrities such as producer and music icon Quincy Jones and actor Anthony Hopkins, among others. Since the airings, the skits have found their way on the internet. The first skit has been viewed more than 66,000 times on YouTube.com, for example. Further exposure is guaranteed when the show goes into repeats and episodes come out on DVD.
Why it worked: The deal showed that Toyota has a sense of humor. Advertisers have long stayed away from integrating their products into late-night sketch shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "MADtv," fearing that the often off-color comedy found in them would negatively impact their brands. Despite the show's fairly edgy humor, "MADtv" proved a lucrative way to target the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, introducing the Yaris before it hit showrooms.
5. Amazon.com's "Fishbowl"
The deal: As part of its ongoing entertainment efforts, Amazon.com launched "Fishbowl," a weekly talk show hosted by Bill Maher of HBO's "Real Time, to promote its wares. Cingular and UPS are sponsors.
The result: Since the 12-episode series launched on the online retailer's website June 1, sales for everything from books to music have taken off immediately after they are featured on the show. For example, the novel "Rejuvenile" was ranked No. 410,722 in sales on Amazon on June 8. The day after the author appeared on the show, the book moved up to No. 16,153. Janet Evanovich's novel "Twelve Sharp" ranked No. 2 on the site and bumped up to No. 1 the day after it appeared on the June 22 broadcast. And Josh Ritter's album "Animal Years" moved up from No. 283 to No. 228 on the music charts hours after he performed on the show. Dean Koontz's "The Husband" jumped from No. 34 to No. 29 in a day and has hovered around the 31st spot since the author's interview June 1. Seventy-three percent of consumers who had viewed the page for "The Husband" as of June 22 ended up buying it.
Why it worked: It's not a hard sell. Each half hour features Mr. Maher interviewing authors, musicians, TV personalities and filmmakers to discuss their latest projects. In between, UPS sponsors the "UPS Special Delivery" segment, in which a celebrity unexpectedly shows up at an Amazon customer's home with an item they ordered. Individual interviews are also broken up and appear on an artist's individual Amazon page. Guests on the show have included authors Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Chuck Klosterman, Thomas Friedman and Christopher Noxon; music acts Rob Thomas, Taking Back Sunday and the Dixie Chicks; and filmmakers Jon Favreau and Sydney Pollack.
THE FIVE WORST
1. Lions Gate's Promotional Partnership With Starbucks
The deal: Independent studio Lions Gate, home to enormous moneymakers such as "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and the "Saw" horror franchise, wanted a high-profile promotional partner for "Akeelah and the Bee," fearing the family film otherwise might not get the attention it deserved. As a result, Lions Gate made a precedent-setting deal with coffee behemoth Starbucks.
The result: They got the partner, but at what price? A centerpiece of the deal called for Starbucks to promote the film at its 8,300 locations around the movie's late April release. Its employees, dubbed baristsas, were to serve as evangelists for the tale of a young South Central Los Angeles girl who makes it to the national spelling bee. Coffee shops scribbled spelling bee-caliber words on their chalkboards and put flashcards on tables. For the first time, the chain promoted a product other than its own on coffee sleeves, printing them with obscure words worthy of champion spellers. It was all intended to be "experiential" and "get people interacting," Starbucks executives said. In return, Starbucks asked for, and received, a cut of the movie's theatrical, DVD and merchandise profits without investing a dime into its production. Neither company would disclose the exact split.
Why it didn't work: The movie wasn't a hit. "Akeelah," which garnered mostly positive reviews from critics, opened to a paltry $6 million and made about $18 million in theaters. Its cost was modest and so were its box-office receipts, well below what the industry expected from a property that had the full blessing of Starbucks.
What's next: The DVD release is still to come, and could add additional millions to the final tally, but Lions Gate might never gain as much as it gave away on "Akeelah." Starbucks executives said "Akeelah" marked the beginning of their feature-film foray, and they intend to co-market at least a handful of movies each year. No word yet if other studios will make a similar deal. Chances are they'll look at the results from the "Akeelah" promotion first.
2. Chevy Tahoe's Tie-in With "The Apprentice"
The deal: General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet asked consumers to create a commercial for the new Tahoe sport utility vehicle as part of a tie-in with NBC's "The Apprentice" on March 13, with participants given music and video clips of the same visuals -- the Tahoe perching on snow-capped mountains and rushing waterfalls and driving through forests and across deserts -- found in its official TV spots.
The result: By April 5, Chevy had received 21,000 submissions. Of those, an estimated 3,000 slammed the automaker. And unfortunately for Chevy, those were the ones generating the most attention, making the rounds via e-mail or shown on blogs or social-networking sites such as YouTube.com.
With titles such as "Global Warming" and "WWJD" ("What Would Jesus Drive"), the spots ranged in tone from mocking ("How Big Is Yours?") to damning (one was titled "2327," the number of soldiers killed in Iraq). Consumers got to write their own ad copy, which was superimposed over the visuals. In one ad, the Tahoe is seen driving through the various landscapes as the copy reads: "This SUV gets 12 miles per gallon. Releases tons of carbon every year that'll stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years. Temperatures are rising. Polar icecaps are melting. Growing food is getting harder. Violent storms are increasing. Global warming is happening now. What will you tell your kids you drove? Chevy Tahoe. An American Revolution."
Another ad says, "We paved the prairies, we deforested the hills, we strip-mined our mountains and sold ourselves for oil to bring you this beautiful machine." Also touching on the oil issue, another ad says: "Our planet's oil is almost gone. You don't need GPS to see where this road leads." Meanwhile, others were even more environmentally conscious: "Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now. Then say hello to global warming."
Why it didn't work: Whereas other marketers, including Converse, Chrysler Group, GM's Cadillac, Home Depot, L'Oreal, MasterCard, Sony Corp., Toyota Motor Sales USA and JetBlue, have experimented with user-generated content, those companies filtered the submissions before posting them. Chevy did not.
The bright side: All of the attention drove traffic to www.chevyapprentice.com, where visitors spent on average of 10 minutes on the site, which tells consumers about the Tahoe's improvements over previous models, such as its improved fuel economy and safety equipment, along with convenience features and versatility. And if anything, the attention generated around the Tahoe only helped improve the already strong numbers for the vehicle at the time. Despite a slump in the large-SUV segment, sales of the Tahoe were up 37% when the campaign was launched vs. last year. Sales rose 20% in March and surged 50% in January.
3. EBay's Decision to Pull Out of "Buy It Now"
The deal: EBay would have been the focus of a feel-good reality show this summer on ABC called "Buy It Now," produced by Madison Road Entertainment ("Treasure Hunters"). The show would have revolved around families looking to fulfill their dreams by placing their prized possessions up for sale on eBay, with friends and neighbors also chipping in to raise funds. In addition, there would have been sponsor-donated fantasy packages and mystery items up for sale. Money raised would have been used to make the family's dreams a reality.
The result: No show. Again. Just as the network began promoting the project to media buyers before the broadcast upfront sale period, eBay decided against participating in the show. And without eBay there couldn't be a show. It was the second time eBay had opted to pull the plug on a TV series centered on the auction powerhouse. In 2004, Sony Pictures TV started shopping a syndicated show it had spent several years developing with eBay.
Why it didn't happen: This time, eBay pulled out because, unlike other shows that interchangeably integrate products into programming, "Buy It Now" would have revolved entirely around eBay. But eBay wasn't closely involved with the concept's initial development; producers and ABC pitched the idea to eBay executives. Despite the heavy focus on eBay, the company would not have owned the show. ABC was footing much of the bill for the series, thus controlling the creative and how the site and brand would ultimately appear on screen. ABC was looking to secure eBay's involvement in the show as part of a talent-holding deal for a set period of time. But eBay wanted the flexibility to ditch the project should it prove a failure in the ratings, something that could hurt the company's stock price, given that it's publicly traded. At the same time, it wanted the option to leave the series at any time even if it became an instant hit. After all, eBay isn't an entertainment company; it's not used to producing programming, and it wanted to be able to call it quits if it felt a tie-in with a TV show wasn't something it wanted as part of its marketing plans.
What's next: An eBay show still could make it to the air sometime soon. Madison Road is still working with ABC to develop "Buy It Now" into a show for mid-season or next summer. And eBay is still interested in the concept, as well as other potential TV projects.
4. Product Placement in "Curious George"
The deal: Hollywood has kept its animated films off-limits to advertisers looking to place their products into family fare, but that started to change in February with Universal Pictures' "Curious George."
The result: The film, which opened Feb. 10 and earned $58 million at the domestic box office, featured the well-known chimp from the popular young book series crashing into crates of Dole fruit, and the Man in the Yellow Hat racing along in a Volkswagen truck -- a fictional truck plastered with VW's logo. Animated films may be taking off with older audiences, but in "Curious George's" case, the film was targeted directly at young children and their parents.
Why it didn't work: In the past, studios such as the Walt Disney Co., Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation have shied away from integrating real brands into their animated movies, and those films have remained one of the few brand-free places in entertainment. DreamWorks Animation has become known for its parodies of real brands in movies such as "Shark Tale" and "Shrek 2," which featured Coral-Cola instead of Coca-Cola and Farbucks in lieu of Starbucks. But the integrations in "Curious George" not only weren't necessary, they also helped the arguments of already-angry watchdog groups against product placement in entertainment, as well as those critical of advertising to children in general, particularly by marketers of fast food, salty snacks and sugary cereal.
5. The WGA and SAG's War of Words Over Product Placement
The deal: Members of the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild have been on a tirade for more than a year, disrupting meetings and holding press conferences to make public their disdain for the growing practice of embedding marketers into shows. They say on-air talent and writers should have a voice in the process and want a financial cut of what they say are lucrative deals.
The result: They are well-organized and highly visible. They speak in sound bites and offer up smart producers, such as "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry and John Wells, and respected stars to decry brand integration on TV. That hasn't mattered. WGA West President Patric Verrone said their protests are falling on deaf ears.
Why it hasn't worked: Although the WGA and its brethren have pounded away at the issue -- even creating a website called productinvasion.com -- they have yet to schedule formal meetings with networks or production companies about the matter. Executives at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers say there's a proper channel for such a discussion and the unions haven't taken it. That calls into question the motivations of the union leadership -- do they really want to resolve the conflict? Mr. Verrone says he's heard nothing but "a roaring silence" on the other side of the issue, but the AMPTP says it's still waiting for a phone call.
What's next: The industry might have to prepare for more of the same tedious back-and-forth until someone blinks.