The Biz: 'Idol' sponsors plan to sing along loudly

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When "American Idol" starts up again Jan. 19, all six sponsors from last season will be along every step of the way with the wannabe singing sensations.

Fox has re-inked deals with AT&T Wireless, Coca-Cola Co., Ford Motor Co., Clairol Herbal Essences, Old Navy and Subway Restaurants. Together, Fox and its partners plan to step up nearly every component of their on-air and off-channel promotion around the show.

"The sponsors help us get into places that we couldn't buy," said Roberta Mell, Fox's exec VP-marketing. "This show is hugely important to the network. It's like our Super Bowl."

Among the efforts that will ramp up: more retail and online initiatives, broader print ad campaigns, more direct outreach to consumers via mailers and viewing parties and campus activities. Partners likely will co-market across their outlets, and AT&T Wireless will launch a text-based fan mail system and interactive "Idol"-centric games to keep fans connected when they're not in front of the set.

AT&T Wireless, which logged 7.5 million text votes during the show's last incarnation, will throw in some new "Idol" features to stress the non-voice capabilities of its phones and develop a "sticky relationship" with customers, a company spokesman said. Viewers will be able to send text fan mail to the show's contestants and play "Idol" games, keeping the show top-of-mind.

Subway, whose ads appeared around the show, will take a larger role this time out, with product integration, in-store promotions and a heavier media buy. The sandwich chain's spokesman, Jared, could pop up in "Idol" segments, and finalists could be seen making their own creations in one of the chain's restaurants or snacking on the food backstage.

Coca-Cola will continue its backstage Red Room, but will give the waiting area a makeover to mirror the new graphics on its packaging. Everything from the vending machines to the cups in the hands of judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson will sport the new look.

`new things'

Coke Classic will share the "Idol" spotlight with Vanilla Coke this season, as the marketer tries to further cement the product with the core young demo. Internet content will be more plentiful, as will consumer contests and offers, though details are still coming together.

"We're continuing with several elements because they've worked and consumers expect to see them," said Doug Rollins, brand manager of the Coca-Cola Trademark, part of the youth marketing team. "We also want to build and do new things."

Ford executives said they haven't finalized their integration plans, but will continue to incorporate young-skewing models such as Focus and Escape into the show.

Herbal Essences will again send a colorist to touch up the show's finalists in on-air segments. The marketer is spreading the promotion across more of its brands, from hair color and shampoo to body wash. A spokeswoman said the sponsorship was a "good continuity builder," with company research showing recall of the brand's ads jumped 75% after viewers saw the in-show segment last year.

Fox also is increasing its show of force, with more off-channel efforts. There will be heavy radio and cable TV ads, and a stronger online presence with postings on message boards, e-mail blasts and viral marketing. The on-air promotion, with affiliate help, will spread beyond prime time to news and sports. Executives are talking to Clear Channel and Infinity about doing weekly radio vignettes, and are looking for a sponsor for a radio remote.

Much is resting on the young "Idol"'s shoulders. Fox has struggled this season, with its highly touted porn drama "Skin" and "The Next Joe Millionaire" falling flat. The Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie reality show, "The Simple Life" and "The O.C." are among the few bright spots in Fox's lineup.

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