NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- On NBC's "30 Rock," Tina Fey's character is a neurotic named Liz Lemon. But during a recent promo for the show, the announcer referred to her not as Liz but as Tina. It's a terrific example of how the former "Saturday Night Live" head writer is a brand all her own -- an on-air and online juggernaut who's one of the strongest forces in entertainment today.
Sweet but subversive, Ms. Fey can take a piece out of anyone -- just ask former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the inspiration for Ms. Fey's hilarious impression on "SNL" during election season. The spot-on portrayal led to a surge in "SNL" viewership, up more than 76% year over year, and to an appearance by Ms. Palin herself, which helped "SNL" grab its best ratings in 14 years, as 17 million people tuned in.
Then there was a vibrant afterlife online that gave some life to NBC.com and other video streaming sites. Five skits featuring Ms. Fey as Ms. Palin generated 27.7 million views on NBC.com alone, according to Visible Measures. Aggregating views from across 150 video-sharing sites, the firm measured a total of 68.6 million views for Ms. Fey as the would-be veep. Those sites included NBC, YouTube, MySpace, DailyMotion and Metacafe. Though NBC's Hulu wasn't included in the count, it isn't hard to make the leap to figure that the skits must have driven traffic to that site (co-owned by NBC Universal) as well.
"Over this decade, she came out of nowhere and slowly built her awareness to where she is now recognized by six out of 10 Americans," said Henry Schafer, executive VP at Marketing Evaluations, the Manhasset, N.Y., company that developed and manages the famous "Q Scores" that examine familiarity and appeal of celebrities.
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Despite her turn as a satirist, she has a name marketers may well covet. While first and foremost an actress and comedienne, Ms. Fey is also quite skilled at helping products stand out. Her turn as a pitchwoman for American Express trades simply on her persona -- she's harried, put-upon, just trying to catch a break, only to find that her credit card helps her find a little peace of mind in a world that offers only more chaos.
At NBC, she's also a force to be reckoned with. With "30 Rock" partly under her aegis -- she holds the titles of executive producer and writer -- the program has evolved into what is perhaps a striking case study in how to weave products into programs and not tick viewers off.
Where many producers stick products in shows in a way that is obvious and intrusive, and yet fail to acknowledge that breach of faith between program and viewer, Ms. Fey has been instrumental in admitting that business is in fact getting done. "Can we have our money now?" she asks in one episode after Verizon Wireless is prominently featured. (Other brands showcased include Snapple and SoyJoy.) It's an honest, refreshing tactic -- one that others might try to emulate at a time when consumers are demanding more transparency about what forces shape their buying decisions.