Product Placement in Edgey Content No Longer Viewed as Problem

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LOS ANGELES -- Marketers have developed a sense of humor.

Advertisers have long stayed away from integrating their products into late-night sketch shows like “Saturday Night Live” or “MADtv,” fearing that the often off-color comedy found in them would negatively impact their brands.
MADtv used to be a place that major marketers avoided for fear of being tainted by its over-the-top humor. But now, Toyota has come to view it as a way to reach an audience that enjoys edgy content.

That’s no longer the case.

Toyota Motor Sales USA has decided to use Fox’s “MADtv” as a way to promote its new Yaris sedan and hatchback, which rolls into dealerships in May.

As part of its deal with the series, the Yaris will be integrated into five pre-taped skits that star series regulars Ike Barinholtz and Bobby Lee and their comedic misadventures as they travel around Los Angeles in the small car.

Viral distribution

The first six-minute sketch aired Jan. 28, and revolved around Mr. Barinholtz and Mr. Lee teaching fellow cast member Jordan Peele, a New Yorker, how to drive. Since the airing, the skit has found its way on the Internet, and via has been virally distributed to Web users and viewed 709 times, as of Feb. 8. Further exposure is guaranteed when the show goes into repeats and episodes end up on DVD.

The second skit bows on Feb. 18, and has Mr. Barinholtz and Mr. Lee taking dates to Hollywood hotspot Big Wangs. Hilarity ensues. As part of a running gag, the cars in the skits are borrowed from celebrities such as producer and music icon Quincy Jones and actor Anthony Hopkins, among others.

Deal makers declined to disclose specific financial terms between Toyota Motor Sales USA and “MADtv,” but the automaker is paying the producers an integration fee and has bought media time during the episodes -- a requirement for any advertiser looking for placement within the show.

Despite the show’s fairly edgy humor, Toyota considered “MADtv” a lucrative way to target the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, to let them preview the Yaris before it hits showrooms. The series, now in its 11th season, has rivaled NBC’s powerhouse “Saturday Night Live” with its pop culture spoofs and political parodies, and earned a loyal following among not only the 18-to-34 crowd but also teens in the 12-to-17 demo.

Puts product in 'creative fun environment'

“Yaris is all about creative spirit, and ‘MADtv’s’ improv-style sketch comedy places the car in a creative, fun environment,” said Mark Simmons, Toyota’s national manager for advertising strategy and media. “Our first task is making the new name Yaris recognizable to our target audience. Yaris is entering a really competitive segment, with a number of new models and nameplates hitting the U.S. market this year. The ‘MADtv’ opportunity is timed perfectly to build name awareness leading into, and extending through the initial sales launch this spring.”

But Toyota isn’t the only advertiser that’s started integrating itself into “MADtv.”

Last year, a sketch mocking everyone from George Bush to Britney Spears was set in a Sprint ring tone recording studio, while Activision’s “Tony Hawk’s Underground 2” video game appeared in another skit earlier this year. T-Mobile is also expected to officially appear in a sketch later this season, even through the show has spoofed the company’s long-running ad campaign that stars Catherine Zeta Jones. Those were the first. Now the series’ producers David Salzman, Quincy Jones and Dick Blasucci of QDe are talking to a number of other advertisers about the rest of this season and about deals for the 12th season.

Madison Road Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based branded entertainment shop, brokered the Toyota and Sprint deals for “MADtv.” Toyota’s Hollywood rep Brand Arc, The Firm and media buyer ZenithOptimedia also worked on the Toyota deal. Fox brought Activision and T-Mobile to the show’s producers.

“MADtv” is increasing its integration efforts after producers of the show secured the rights from Fox to broker placement deals itself nearly two seasons ago.

'Add reality to the show'

Integrations proved attractive to “MADtv’s” producers because “they add reality to the show when we’re able to use real brands,” said executive producer Salzman. “Since we’re a pop culture parody show, being able to show the real thing to us is always better than not.”

The financial benefit also doesn’t hurt. “It hopefully also adds money to our pocket,” Mr. Salzman added.

But the show can’t accept every advertiser that’s looking to connect with its young audience.

“We can’t dance with everybody that taps us on the shoulder,” Mr. Salzman said. “We have to be very selective.”

Integrations can never play as an endorsement, he said. There’s the risk of going overboard with placements -- the show isn’t looking to include an advertiser in every episode. And placements can never dilute the edgy humor that the show’s become known for. “If we can do it in a seamless and organic way, we’ll try to accomplish that,” Mr. Salzman said, citing the use of the “Tony Hawk” video game earlier this year. In that skit, a video-game addict is shown playing the game. Cutaway shots of the game were shown and the name was used in the dialogue. “It made the sketch funnier and more believable,” Mr. Salzman said.

But at the end of the day, producers need to make sure that both the audience and the advertiser are laughing.

“Working advertisers into a show like ‘MADtv’ without offending the advertiser is difficult,” said Jak Severson, CEO of Madison Road Entertainment. In creating the Toyota sketches, “we went to great pains to deal with the brand’s messaging while staying true to the comedic principals of ‘MADtv.’ The challenge with a show like ‘MADtv’ is that the minute you try to betray the comedy the audience is used to, you lose them.”
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