Mr. Letterman raised some eyebrows about 20 minutes into Thursday's "Late Show with David Letterman" by telling viewers of the CBS program, "Hey, we'll be right back after this special message from Mazzz-da."
Gaining street cred
Those tuning in then saw a cutaway to the show's announcer Alan Kalter talking up the benefits of the new Mazda6 while seated in a bright-red version of the automobile parked outside the famous Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. Mr. Kalter proceeded to chat about the vehicle's many features, such as a luxurious interior, solid construction, not to mention "a blind-spot monitoring system" -- really just a side-view mirror. The action took a surprising turn when a leather-jacketed thug who claimed to be the car's real owner pulled Mr. Kalter from the car, pummeled him against the windshield and left him lying dazed on a city street.
All the other major late-night programs -- including those hosted by ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, NBC's Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, and even Mr. Letterman's CBS late-night partner, Craig Ferguson -- have indulged in new forms of ads that are more a part of the programs themselves. Mr. Kimmel's program regularly features live commercials, while Mr. O'Brien in the summer of 2007 did a brief sketch about Miller Chill beer. Mr. Leno's show has run a live ad for Garmin's GPS devices, and Mr. Ferguson has incorporated material about Ford vehicles into running bits on his late-night outings.
Not so Mr. Letterman, who has a reputation in the industry of being extremely guarded about the quality of his show. As NBC prepares to transition Mr. O'Brien on June 1 into the "Tonight Show" chair currently held by Mr. Leno, Mr. Letterman is seen as the last link to a different era of late-night programming, when Johnny Carson dominated the ratings and had very little competition.
As such, don't expect the "Late Show" to feature this sort of advertising with any regularity. "We will work with a couple of clients a year and look to do something that's very unique and very creative and is really part of the program," said Chris Simon, exec VP-sales at CBS. He added: "This is something we are going to do a couple or few times a year with the right client." Mazda is owned by Ford Motor Co., which Mr. Simon said is "our largest late-night advertiser." CBS declined to comment on the specifics of the arrangement, including the cost. A spokeswoman for "Late Show" said executives at Worldwide Pants, Mr. Letterman's production company and owner of the program, declined to comment.
Thursday night's Mazda ad has been in the works since August, said Marty Daly, senior VP-director, news and late-night sales at CBS -- and it required the cooperation of not just the network, the marketer and its agencies, but also of Worldwide Pants. "This was fully scripted, fully shot live on tape," he said, and used "a part of a running character in the program. Alan gets beaten up once or twice a month. The audience is used to that."
Unlike prime-time fare, late-night programs face a distinctive challenge: As the shows run past midnight, the audiences begin to dwindle, with more viewers opting for shut-eye. With the introduction of commercial ratings -- in which advertisers pay for ad time based on viewership of ad breaks, not programs -- all the networks have fiddled with the way they run ads in late night, moving some ads earlier so that they are seen by more of the program's audience.
Dueling with DVRs
CBS executives said Thursday's Mazda sketch-ad hybrid was not prompted by any desire to snare better commercial ratings, but simply by a yen to help marketers thwart a threat all TV shows face: DVR playback, where viewers often fast-forward past commercials. "Everybody is trying to DVR-proof their message," Mr. Simon said. The effort by Mr. Letterman's team plays off a technique that has gained traction in Japan, in which ads feature characters and actors from the programs they interrupt, in an effort to appear more seamless.