During an airing of "Friday Night Smackdown," Electronic Arts will run three 10-second ads CW has dubbed "cwickies," each of which will appear as the first ad in their respective commercial breaks. But that's not all. The cwickies will be sandwiched by "isolated" ad breaks -- each containing only one EA commercial. One, near the wrestling program's start, contains only a 60-second EA spot. The last, near the end, consists solely of a 90-second EA trailer. Everything leading up to the trailer points to that end piece, where video-game junkies can see never-before-viewed footage from "Madden NFL 08." Thanks to the innovative use of ad lengths and positions, EA can be well assured its commercials will stand apart from the rest of the 30-second pack that evening.
On network TV, where commercials for the most part have been sold in 30-second increments, this type of placement is hard to obtain. Networks are "not always so flexible," said Amber Mayo, media strategist at EA.
More equal than others
CW, however, is fast becoming a petri dish for radical experiments in TV advertising. Broadcast networks reach the biggest and broadest audiences, and use that fact to resist pressure from media buyers and marketers to dump their old 30-second ways and try something new. But model-busting ad ideas, such as the cwickies and "content wraps" -- CW's series of long ads placed over the course of a single night -- do something that gives network executives the willies. They make one marketer's commercials more memorable than others airing in the same program, threatening to ruin a decades-old ad system. In the past, one TV ad had as good a chance as any to get noticed. Now, as the old saying goes, some ads are becoming more equal than others. And that's fine by EA.
EA's goal is "to make sure that our message is paid attention to," said Tom Winner, global director of broadcast buying at Wieden & Kennedy, which crafted the ads. "We'll let the other advertisers figure out what to do to keep their message front and center."
Talk of ads that make one marketer more memorable while diminishing another's ability to stand out has long frightened broadcast networks away from trying radical ideas pushed by Madison Avenue. MediaVest, a Publicis Groupe ad-buying firm that counts Procter & Gamble Co. among its clients, has tried for years to get broadcast networks to consider new formats. MediaVest has talked to various broadcast networks about running advertiser logos at the bottom of the screen during a program, said Pam Zucker, a MediaVest senior VP. Another of the firm's ideas: running a commercial in half a TV screen while characters from a program go about their business in the other half.
Forcing the issue
"The conversations never went very far," Ms. Zucker said. Networks turned down all these ideas "because they really weren't concerned about the effectiveness of commercials."
These days, advertisers are forcing the issue. They are crafting ad deals that carry viewership guarantees for commercials instead of programs, which means ad performance will come under more scrutiny. Meanwhile, competing media have already begun to break their rules and offer ads that are more difficult to ignore. Cable has embraced commercial-free season premieres and themed ad breaks. Radio has tested ads that are mere seconds in length. And magazines have begun to stuff CDs and hard-to-fold inserts into their bindings. All of these concepts aim at one thing: making these ads, which often involve more complex production and higher prices, stand out.
Broadcasters have tested some of these approaches on a limited basis, but history has burdened them with lots of obstacles that get in the way. Networks are duty-bound to give some of their ad time to local affiliates, making it hard to sell out a show to a single advertiser. They also try to keep one rival from gaining an edge over the other. Coke and Pepsi ads appearing in the same break, so the thinking goes, would cancel each other out. So imagine the hand-wringing that must be going on over more complex advertising executions that would help a single marketer dominate an entire program.
Even so, CW's ideas are attracting notice. "Ads and promotions are going to have to sell the product in a much more interesting way," said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.'s CEO, at a recent event, subsequently pointing to CW's content wraps. There is also good reason for CW to try these methods.
"The landscape is changing very quickly and we have a young audience that's hard to reach," said Alison Tarrant, CW's senior VP-integrated sales and marketing. The network must be "distinct and creative," she said.
One problem with these new ideas: They can be extremely labor-intensive. For one thing, they are designed to work with a particular program, not run again and again. So each flight of ads may have to be specially crafted, adding expense to production.
Ms. Tarrant said she has had some worrisome moments. When the idea of doing a "wrap" for a brand of mouthwash came up, she wondered, "How am I going to come up with a story that's entertaining enough for an audience that includes someone swishing a product around in their mouth?" The result: a series of two-minute pieces for Pfizer's Listerine Whitening Pre-Brush Rinse featuring Beverley Mitchell, a starlet from the CW program "7th Heaven" talking about the importance of white teeth in giving her confidence to consider a country-music career.