Marketers applaud Rock, hope for racy Oscar night

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Marketers may have steered clear of controversy at this year's Super Bowl, but they seem to be embracing the prospect of an edgier Academy Awards. The hiring of outspoken comedian Chris Rock as this year's host is seen as a refreshing choice, despite the current wave of conservatism bearing down on the media.

"He's hilarious, spontaneous. I think he'll be amazing," said Shari Ann Brill, VP-director, programming, Carat, part of Aegis Group.

Echoed Doug Seay, senior VP national broadcast at Publicis & Hal Riney: "I was like, thank God it's not Billy Crystal. You have to do something to make it more relevant to younger audiences to charge that kind of pricing."

A spot on this year's broadcast costs $1.6 million, up from $1.5 million in 2004. The 3.5 hour broadcast Feb. 27 will contain 48 spots from advertisers including Pepsi-Cola Co., Anheuser-Busch, Microsoft and new beauty-category entrant L'Oreal.

Burned by the steep audience declines for its Emmy Awards in September (down 35% in the 18-49 demo), ABC appears to be leaving nothing to chance. The networks' publicists are in overdrive keeping Mr. Rock front and center in the run-up to the big day. He is set to appear on "Oprah," "60 Minutes" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" during Oscar week alone.

He's already generated much more press than hosts in previous years, thanks to a Feb. 7 interview in Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly. Mr. Rock set off a firestorm and reportedly riled Academy members when he criticized the event and said straight guys didn't watch it (see box, P. 52). Event producer Gil Cates insists the Academy is fine with his comments. Said one veteran Hollywood publicist, "Chris pushes the buttons, he's younger, great for the Oscars and he's purposely looking to cause controversy."

a big push

Beth Harris, director-marketing at the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Science, said this year's event has seen the biggest marketing push in years. The company has spent media dollars on an outdoor campaign in New York and Los Angeles for the first time. Working through Omnicom Group's media agency OMD, the Academy has also bought spots on cable channels. Oscar operatives have planted items on movie Web sites' bulletin boards.

JC Penney and Pepsi were also brought in to add distribution channels. The retailer has publicized the event in direct mail while Pepsi has helped the Academy gain presence in 10,000 drug and grocery stores across the country. A print campaign is also running in February editions of entertainment magazines, while United Airlines is airing a 22-minute in-flight video on past Oscar winners on domestic flights.

Ms. Harris, who's in her second year on the job, is already working on 2006 plans with Masterfoods' M&Ms and L'Oreal. "Our slogan is `Oscar Rocks.' ... We like that we're taking some risks and it's exciting for us."

When asked about whether Mr. Rock is seen as a risky choice, Andrea Wong, exec VP-alternative programming and specials, at ABC responded: "[The risk factor] is appealing. He knows what he needs to do and the audience is going to tune in to see that."

But even with the added publicity, agency executives are not expecting a ratings boost. Carat's Ms. Brill expects the Oscar broadcast to be down this year because of the lack of a blockbuster film such as "Titanic" or "Lord of the Rings."

Mr. Seay also projects ratings will be slightly down or flat with last year.

What he said

"Awards for art are f***ing idiotic."

"I never watched the Oscars. Except the Halle Berry/Denzel Washington year. But even then, I went back and forth to other channels. Come on, it's a fashion show. No one performs; it's not a music show. What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one. And they don't recognize comedy, and you don't see a lot of black people nominated, so why should I watch it? Where's my in?"

"Nothing against people who aren't straight, but what straight guy that you know cares? Who gives a f***? They're clothes."

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