People who watch this Sunday's episode of ABC's "Revenge" may be surprised to discover how difficult it is to ignore its ads for a Target and Neiman Marcus partnership.
For one thing, these ads are the only ones that will run during the episode, because Target and Neiman Marcus are the sole sponsors. And sure, viewers can fast-forward past the spots with a DVR. But if they do, they'll miss five separate long-form commercials featuring the cast of the soapy drama in an ongoing "story within a story" that looks as if it's pulled right from the program.
Those clever spots, which combine to run about 10 minutes, will all appear during the episode even if people watch on ABC.com, Hulu or their cable company's video-on-demand system -- all venues that usually run far fewer ads than TV. ABC will also try to reel in viewers who use a "second screen" while watching by urging them to visit the "Revenge" home page online for additional content and clues to the outcome of the five-ad series.
To make certain the ads are alluring for "Revenge" viewers, ABC assigned certain show staffers to work on them. The clips' set designers, the actors, the writers -- all work for the show. "It's 'Revenge,' and we think that 's what is going to make it really worthwhile for the fans," said Jeff Jones, Target 's chief marketing officer. "Stuff gets skipped today, for sure, but we think what we have done and what we are trying to do is create content that is worth sharing."
The gambit illustrates how much work it takes to get viewers to focus on old-school TV commercials. Time was, running an ad in a popular program such as "Revenge" was its own reward. Now, with audiences for live TV programs diminished, then scattered among dozens of new-tech viewing options, advertisers can't always be certain a single 30-second spot carries as much weight as it once did.
Yet the audiences of those TV shows remain alluring. In the case of "Revenge," said Wanda Gierhart, chief marketing officer of The Neiman Marcus Group, the show "has a devoted following among viewers 18 to 49 that made it especially appealing to us. The style of living and the fashion portrayed in the show is one many Neiman Marcus customers are familiar with."
Target has concocted similar efforts in the past. In 2005, the retailer bought up all the ad space in an issue of Conde Nast's The New Yorker and used it to run pages of specially commissioned artwork featuring the company's popular red bull's-eye logo. When ABC aired the series finale of its enigmatic drama "Lost" in 2010, Target ran ads that took popular icons of the drama -- like a computer keyboard -- and showed how much they might cost at Target . Clearly, the commercials would not have resonated in any other TV program.
The stakes have only grown higher since then as viewer attention has continued to splinter. Buying up all the ad time during a program typically costs a premium, as the network doing the selling must make up the money it stands to lose from running fewer ads from a single sponsor, rather than tens of spots from a multitude. And yet, TV viewing has changed so much that even kicking other advertisers out of the episode is no guarantee that the spots will resound.
ABC appears to be going the extra mile. Ensuring that third-party distributors like Hulu and cable systems will keep the ads in place, in the order they are meant to be seen, can take some doing. (No doubt, it helps that ABC parent Walt Disney is a partial owner of Hulu). Of course, ABC is well- known for insisting that any of its shows made available for video on demand have any fast-forwarding function disabled.
"We have seen significant growth in total VOD orders, with usage increasing most in households that also have DVR, which would allow them to fast-forward, suggesting that the lack of fast-forward functionality in VOD is not impeding our viewers' adoption of the platform," said Marla Provencio, exec VP-chief marketing officer, ABC Entertainment Group.
The network's outreach -- and its work to make the creative people behind the show available to the advertiser -- add a new twist to a practice that has gained traction over the years. Procter & Gamble tested a similar concept in 2004, when it used the ad breaks in Friday-night movies on Lifetime to run segments of a start-to-finish makeover using Crest, CoverGirl, Clairol, Pantene and Olay. Whether the idea would have legs as viewers turn from TV screens to tablets during commercials is a question worth asking.
Target 's Mr. Jones sees more efforts in this vein -- in which the ads surrounding a program are made to look just like it -- emerging in the months ahead. "We definitely think those days are coming," he said. Serving "Revenge" as a means of burnishing its Neiman Marcus partnership is something of an experiment, he acknowledged, but "we are trying to learn and to create something of value for the consumer."