To tout the coming season premiere of TBS's "The Bill Engvall Show," the network has been running a promo at the bottom of the screen during episodes of "Family Guy" that is impossible to miss. Mr. Engvall, with a remote control in hand, starts speaking over the dialogue being uttered by Stewie, Peter, Brian and other members of the animated comedy's Griffin clan.
Mr. Engvall quickly uses the remote to freeze-frame the show and continues talking. After delivering a promotional message, he lets "Family Guy" roll on, only to let the audience discover after a few seconds that the show is breaking for a commercial.
"Without question, it's intrusive. It's as bad as someone walking into the room where I'm watching the show and doing the same thing -- talking while I'm watching. The difference is, I can tell that person to shut up or leave the room," said Chris Anderson, a communications director for the Marketing Arm, a collection of Omnicom Group agencies. "Unfortunately, I can't do that with Bill Engvall's promo." Others echo the sentiment: "A promotion that gets people to throw things at the TV -- unique," said Greg Wilson, creative director at Detroit agency Driven Communications.
TBS's chatty come-on offers yet another illustration of how consumers' growing comfort with the way content is designed and displayed in digital venues is starting to affect the flow of advertising in more-traditional areas, particularly TV.
"I almost wonder if the ad overlays, which are becoming more and more ubiquitous on the digital video screen, are almost laying the groundwork for TV," said John Moore, senior VP-director of ideas and innovation at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen. "Think about it: If consumers start to get used to ad overlays on the bottom of the videos they watch online, is that just the path for the TV stations to say, 'Hey, consumers have already shown they'll digest this kind of marketing online. We can monetize it. Let's move there ourselves'?"
TBS is running this type of promo solely for Mr. Engvall's program, the latest season of which made its debut June 12. The promo "registered with consumers as having impacts both positive -- 'Wow, that got my attention' -- to negative -- 'Wow, I can't believe you interrupted my show.' We see both sides as constructive to build awareness and linkage," said Karen Cassell, a Turner spokeswoman, via e-mail.
TV networks have gotten extremely aggressive with the bottom corners of the screen. Some cable outlets even let pieces of promotional flotsam, known in the industry as "snipes," rise from the corners and take up the bottom third of the TV screen. More recently, however, these animated promos have become decidedly more intrusive, blocking action as it unfurls on the screen or even competing with spoken dialogue.
NBC has run promos for "American Gangster" and "Evan Almighty" -- two films distributed by its NBC Universal sibling Universal Pictures -- across the bottom of the screen during episodes of programs such as "Heroes."
The promotions were notable because they were not hawking anything that ran on NBC's air but rather a separate product. In a December interview with Advertising Age, John Miller, chief marketing officer, NBC Universal Television Group, said running promotions for other parts of the parent company "is not something that we do often." When asked if he could envision a day when NBC ran promos for paying advertisers, he said: "We have not so far sold snipes. Now, could that happen? I suspect it could."
Some ad executives feel the TBS promo works. The plots and gags in "Family Guy" are often so disjointed that an interruption to the show wouldn't necessarily interrupt its flow or feel. "If it were any other show, then it would be seen as intrusive," said Terrance Lum, a Hawaiian graphic designer.
"Because the program is offbeat and surprising, he suggested, "People would view it as being perfectly natural."
Ingenious ... or just desperate?
Others see the networks growing more desperate to spark attention for all the other properties they need to sell. CBS's drama "Swingtown," for example, is set in the mid-1970s and uses lots of music from the period. During the premiere episode, CBS ran what it called "eyeliner plugs" at the bottom of the screen, directing viewers to its Last.fm music site, where they could listen to songs played in the episode.
Meanwhile, NBC on June 9 aired an episode of "American Gladiators" that featured promotions for "The Incredible Hulk," the movie about the neon-green superhero backed by its corporate sister, Universal. The show featured green lights and water, a gladiator in green makeup, and even weightlifter Lou Ferrigno, who played the "Hulk" character on TV in years past.