Entertainment A-List 2010

Entertainment A-List No. 9: Lorne Michaels

'SNL' Producer Uses His Writers to Imbue His Shows' Comedic Sensibilities Into Ads

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Lorne Michaels isn't an ad man, and, when asked, seems loath to get involved in doing the sort of work to which an ad-agency veteran might immediately give the nod. Yet when Mr. Michaels does choose to take a marketer under his wing, his touch can be better than that of King Midas.

Mr. Michaels is best known for programming that is imbued with a counterculture sensibility. That snark is what powers his best-known properties, the long-running live-comedy series "Saturday Night Live" (which he continues to run), the quirky sitcom "30 Rock" and the young "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (both of which he executive produces). While Mr. Michaels says he has generally turned down requests from advertisers during his TV-industry tenure, in recent years he has embraced a handful of projects.

For Pepsi, his "SNL" staff created sketches featuring the show's MacGruber character that included references to the soda and ran during commercial breaks. He also cooperated with Anheuser-Busch InBev when the company made its Bud Light Golden Wheat the only advertiser during an episode of "SNL," allowing outtakes from the show to run during breaks, courtesy of the beverage.

The ad executions get more attention than normal commercials because Mr. Michaels and his writers help craft them, and give them the sensibility of the program they support. More advertisers are seeking the help of show-runners and top producers to help them create stuff people want to watch, not fast-forward past or otherwise avoid.

Sprint was able to persuade "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry to pen campy ad vignettes that had the look and tone of "Housewives," and ran alongside the ABC show (the characters eventually made an appearance in the program). And marketers including Snapple and Verizon Wireless have worked with writers and producers at "30 Rock" to weave their goods into that show in ways that wink at the fact that economics are the reason for their products' appearances -- a method that has proved so winning that fans of the show have been known to ask whether other product appearances in the sitcom are the result of a business deal or the writers' own ideas.

Measured media spending for 2009 on "30 Rock," per Kantar Media
$109.5 MILLION
Measured media spending for "SNL"
Measured media spending for "Jimmy Fallon "
Mr. Michaels says the changing economics of the TV business make this sort of thing more common than it used to be (though his staff once helped write live ads for Polaroid that ran during an early season of "SNL"). "People don't approach us with anything creepy," he said, meaning they don't ask him to change "SNL" to suit their needs and understand the show often takes satirical swipes at popular icons.

He doesn't envision clever ad linkages overwhelming his programs. The quality of the show is "all that matters," he said, noting that viewers don't come away from anything saying, "I really enjoyed the product placement."

No doubt, linking to an institution such as "SNL" can help an advertiser, but sometimes the boost works both ways. Mr. Michaels said that movie executives caught the Pepsi-theme MacGruber sketches and solicited his interest in creating a movie based on the concept. "MacGruber" opened May 21.

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