NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Starbucks' sponsorship of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" was all the chatter this week, but it turns out the coffee chain isn't the only marketer aligning itself closely with news. Ally Bank, the new name given to the recently rebranded GMAC Bank, has signed on as the exclusive sponsor of NPR's "Planet Money," a rare contextual sponsorship deal for the public radio company.
The deal is especially prescient considering Ally is trying to distance itself from government-funded GMAC, which has made plenty of its own financial headlines in recent weeks, including on NPR's own website, as the primary lender of two now bankrupt companies, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler. GMAC has been the recipient of funds from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program.
NPR does not run traditional advertising, only promotion-free sponsored messages. "There is an absolute and clear firewall at NPR between sponsorship and editorial," a spokeswoman said of the Ally deal. "The NPR audience understands that sponsorship announcements are an acknowledgment of support for NPR's work. The introductions to the sponsorship announcements reinforce this point, and that is clearly communicated with all of our potential sponsors."
Blake Truitt, National Public Media's senior VP-network radio and sponsorships, said in a separate interview that "Planet Money" has become one of NPR's most popular shows since its debut in October 2008, helping "Morning Edition" reach record audience levels in its most recent Arbitron ratings. The "Planet Money" podcast has also accumulated 1.3 million monthly downloads, according to Kiptronic, and its accompanying blog and online features attract 568,000 page views a month, according to Atlas/Visual Sciences.
"It was such a special series we really wanted a sponsor who was into the whole concept," Mr. Truitt said. "The ethos of the content, being very straightforward, easy-to-understand explanation of the economy, is in [Ally's] branding statement, so this was a good alignment."
Vinoo Vijay, Ally's brand, advertising and product executive, said the bank was looking for a media partner that would help it reach a more informed consumer. "Our feeling was Ally has a better product offering if the consumer's educated. NPR has a great reputation, and its listeners have a very close connection with the target audience of our bank."
The close alignment of message and news program is rare for NPR but encouraging for clients willing to work around the restrictions, Mr. Truitt said. "At first we're sometimes perceived as a restrictive environment, but upon closer examination, going through the exercise of getting your brand down to 30 seconds is kind of interesting for a brand, and we ask clients to join that challenge. If you want to speak to this group of 26 million people, they can't just slap in their commercial creative. Listeners do prefer to do business with people that speak to them in a public-radio kind of way."
The Ally deal, which will continue through December, is a much-needed source of revenue for NPR, which is down 23% in sponsorships this year vs. 2008, Mr. Truitt said, a figure on par with the rest of the radio industry, which was down 24% in ad revenue in the first quarter of 2009, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. Mr. Truitt said consumer-products, technology and movie marketers have also helped offset some of the losses NPR has seen from other weak categories, including financial services.