Ad pitches head for home plate

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Baseball fans have long worried about the health of their favorite player. But this summer, their own well-being has become a bigger part of the game.

A cadre of pharmaceutical companies are running ads on billboards behind home plate in Major League Baseball stadiums, giving a new twist to the term marketing home run. The ads, visible to some people in the stadium, more importantly are seen by fans watching the games on TV.

Pfizer ads for Viagra are in stadiums in Chicago, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Schering-Plough is augmenting Claritin's official sponsorship of Major League Baseball with ads for the allergy drug in a handful of venues, including among others Shea Stadium in New York and Turner Field in Atlanta. And SmithKline Beecham and Novartis Consumer Health are plugging their respective Nicorette and Lamisil brands with ads in stadiums during Fox's broadcast of the Game of the Week each Saturday.

Marketers like the ads because they dominate the background behind the pitcher-hitter confrontation -- the central image in a baseball telecast -- and become almost as much of a backdrop as the umpire.

"You get to be part of the action," said M.J. Weldon, category director-dermatology at Novartis, who oversees athlete's foot treatment Lamisil. "There aren't a lot of media opportunities that afford that."

The ads also have the potential for a substantial lasting effect, if not immortality. If they appear during an important home run or strikeout, they will be shown repeatedly at no extra cost during highlights of the game on news and sports shows such as ESPN's "SportsCenter."

A MALE TARGET

The pharmaceutical companies use the ads principally to reach a male target. Viagra is an erectile dysfunction treatment targeted to males, and in the case of Lamisil, 70% of consumers in the athlete's foot category are men.

The ads are a slight departure from the balance of pharmaceutical advertising that targets women based on the assumption that females are so-called gatekeepers who make the healthcare decisions for individual households.

But they fit within the trend of cash-rich pharmaceutical marketers' recent push to find new ways to promote their products, including increased sports marketing. Pfizer recently signed a reported $14 million deal to festoon Nascar driver Mark Martin's car next year with the Viagra logo. Novartis has made Lamisil an official sponsor of the National Basketball Association and advertised during broadcasts of high-profile sports events such as the Super Bowl post-game show and NBA playoffs. And Schering-Plough inked the deal last year that made Claritin an official sponsor of Major League Baseball, then launched an ad campaign around it.

DTC DRUG ADVERTISING

The behind-the-plate ads are not new -- they date to 1994 -- but ad sales executives say pharmaceutical companies in particular have shown an increased interest in them. And, in the case of Viagra and Claritin, that dovetails with the recent boom in direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription products.

"The pharmaceutical companies are flush with ad dollars and they're trying to promote their brands," said John Massoni, senior VP-sales and marketing at Dorna USA, which makes the home-plate billboards. "We provide another vehicle for them to do that."

New York-based Dorna is one of only three companies making the billboards, which also may be located behind first and third base. ANC Sports Enterprises, located in Purchase, N.Y., and founded by a former Dorna executive, and SignCo in Lincoln, Neb. are the others.

The rotational billboards change sponsors every half-inning (allowing a minimum of 17 a game), and marketers that also run spots during the telecast sometimes try to position their ads around their time at the plate for maximum clout. The billboards average about two minutes of exposure per half inning, according to ANC Sports.

"It's not on TV as much as you think, but when it is, it's dominant," said Jerry Cifarelli, president of ANC.

Ads are sold largely at the local level. Individual teams may opt to sell the space themselves or hire Dorna or ANC to do it for them. Dorna this season reached deals with Pfizer to run ads at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Cinergy Field in Cincinnati and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

BRAVES NO. 1 IN REVENUE

Schering-Plough has deals with a group of teams, including one with the Atlanta Braves, allowing it to advertise in Turner Field. The Braves, owned by Time Warner, began selling behind-the-plate ads to marketers outside the Time Warner family for the first time this year. Because so many of the team's games are telecast on national cable channel TBS, the Braves are believed to generate more revenue from the ads than any other team. Mr. Cifarelli said teams can bring in up to $5 million a year from rotational billboard ads.

On a national level, Fox offers advertisers that buy a certain number of spots on its Game of the Week broadcasts the chance to run the behind-the-plate ads. Fox sells the space in partnership with local teams. Lamisil and Nicorette, the smoking-cessation product, appear on the billboards as part of that program.

No billboard ads are shown during MLB games on ESPN, which has a national game each Sunday night. Instead, ESPN employs technology from Princeton Video Image allowing it to insert virtual ads behind the batter in its broadcasts. Claritin is the only pharmaceutical-product advertised on these games.

All but four of the 30 Major League teams use the rotational billboards, which started in Tiger Stadium in Detroit and County Stadium in Milwaukee. The Chicago Cubs, resident in tradition-rich Wrigley Field, and the Baltimore Orioles, playing in Camden Yards, an 8-year-old ballpark designed to feel tradition-rich, have no ads behind the plate. Two other teams -- the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres -- use the PVI technology in their local telecasts.

JEWEL EVENTS

So far, no behind-the-batter ads have run during what Major League Baseball terms its "jewel events": the All-Star game, playoffs and World Series. Ad space in stadiums for those events is controlled by MLB, which will decide if the ads will ever be used in these games. But if the league someday changes policy, it may give pharmaceutical marketers the ultimate playing field.

Contributing: Laura Petrecca.

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