Lenovo Is Sponsor and Punchline of Onion Web Series 'Tough Season'

To Find Millennials, The Onion Is Helping Lenovo Find Its Sense of Humor

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On Friday, The Onion is rolling out the second season of its original web series "Tough Season," a mockumentary about one man's quest to become champion of his fantasy football league. Despite the trademark Onion humor, the show didn't spring from The Onion's editorial staff. Instead, it was produced by The Onion Labs, an in-house creative and marketing agency, on behalf of Lenovo.

For its pains to sponsor "Tough Season," Lenovo has also become the butt of several jokes.

In the first episode of season one, for instance, main character Brad Blevins boasts of his mental and visual dexterity while turning over a Lenovo tablet in his hands. "I'm prepared for roughly 582 different scenarios on my Lenovion," he says, mangling the sponsor's name. "I got a whole crate of these. They're sponsoring this whole team -- for some reason."

Then, abruptly, the tablet goes crashing to the floor.

Brad's mistreatment of his Lenovo tablets and his inability to say the company's name correctly are running gags throughout the first season. Viewers can expect more humor at Lenovo's expense in season two. "There's a new thread in this season where Lenovo is kind of a corporate overlord who really takes control of the main character's life," said Rick Hamann, senior VP at The Onion Labs.

"They've embraced parodying corporate sponsorship," he added. "I honestly don't think they turned down a joke at their own expense."

Each of the 13 episodes, which run on TheOnion.com and a dedicated Lenovo site, is roughly five minutes long and features NFL players, including Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker. The second season is adding a new video segment called "Owner's Box," which will be more timely and reactive to what's happening during the actual NFL season.

Lenovo, which has headquarters in Beijing and Morrisville, N.C., is the global leader in PC sales, with 19.2% of the market, according to Gartner. In the U.S., the company surpassed Apple during the second quarter to edge into third place behind HP and Dell. IDC research positions Lenovo as the fourth-largest smartphone vendor worldwide, shipping 15.8 million units last quarter. Lenovo shipped 2.4 million tablets globally in the quarter, up 64.7% from the quarter a year earlier and enough for 4.9% of the market.

Despite its brisk sales -- the company's revenue increased 18% to $10.4 billion during the three months ending June 30 -- Lenovo still lacks the brand recognition of rivals Apple and Samsung. It has spent the last two years trying to establish its brand in the U.S., particularly among 18- to 35-year-olds. The effort has included a sponsorship of the NFL, now entering its third year, as well as a contest that names the fantasy football coach of the year. Since 2012, when Lenovo began sponsoring the NFL, awareness among fantasy football players has increased 32%, according to Kevin Berman, director of advertising and marketing services for Lenovo North America.

"Tough Season" is meant to continue building recognition among millennials. Views for the show's first season, which included eight roughly five-minute episodes, topped 13 million.

"We think it speaks to our audience and is about our product, but in a way that The Onion talks to its audience," Mr. Berman said. It also shows that Lenovo has a sense of humor.

"We're putting Lenovo's name out there but as a company with a certain attitude for this young group that likes authenticity, humor and self-awareness," said Eric Korsh, senior VP-social content at Digitas, which is Lenovo's North American agency of record. "Lenovo isn't shoving itself into these episodes. They're willing to be made fun of -- to be part of the joke."

Messrs. Berman and Korsh declined to say how much Lenovo spent on "Tough Season."

The Onion, which stopped printing a weekly newspaper last year and became a digital-only publisher, has sought to bolster digital ad revenue through the two-year-old Onion Labs. Since the beginning of 2014, The Onion Labs has closed 50 deals, an Onion spokesman said. And earlier this year, the company poached Mr. Hamann from Energy BBDO in Chicago, where he was senior VP and group creative director, to lead The Onion Labs.

"Part of what I wanted to do is bring over the best parts of the agency world that I grew up in, but more importantly leave behind the aspects of the agency world I didn't like," Mr. Hamann said. "I don't want to bash my previous life too much," he added, "but I found that process gets in the way of creativity. The agency world can get a little stuck in process. The fewer hurdles an idea has to go over the stronger it is."

About 90% of The Onion's ad deals include a custom component, said Mike McAvoy, the company's president. He declined to disclose the company's revenue.

The Onion, which began life by spoofing print newspapers and later cable TV news, more recently introduced Clickhole.com, a parody of viral sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy. The site attracted 774,000 unique visitors across desktop and mobile in July, according to ComScore.

Traffic to TheOnion.com climbed 64% in July from the month a year prior to nearly 9.6 million unique visitors, ComScore said. The Onion also publishes AVClub.com, which attracted 4.2 million unique visitors, a 127% increase.

Contributing: Mark Bergen