As Airtime Gets Tighter, Networks Get More Creative

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NEW YORK -- As increasing numbers of advertisers clamor for product placements in TV programming, networks are being forced to come up with creative new ways to accommodate those clients. One of the most unusual of late has been the SciFi Channel's use of its own house ad to support a product placement.
The SciFi Channel integrated Audi into a house ad.

That recent spot opens with a sporty-looking Audi A3 cruising toward the camera down a scenic two-lane highway. A voice-over asks, "What if imagination were a destination? How would you get there?” As the highway morphs into a mystical world, the car glides around a hairpin mountain turn and continues on as the major visual element in the special effects-oriented ad about SciFi's programming.

First of its type

The integration of the automaker's new A3 hatchback is the first house-ad integration of its type produced by the NBC Universal-owned network.

“There’s only so much product placement and brand integration you can build into a storyline,” said Adam Stotsky, senior vice president of marketing and creative. “SciFi’s got a lot of opportunities to connect a client’s brand with our consumers.”

So when the NBC Universal sales team came to him with the notion of integrating Audi into a SciFi branding spot, he developed the idea of taking a journey down the road of imagination, with the car as the vehicle.

“First and foremost,” he said, “it’s a brand point of view for SciFi. ... It’s paramount for us to ensure we’re not compromising the promotional message we’re trying to communicate.” SciFi’s team developed and produced the spot, collaborating with the automaker in the concept, script, rough cut and finishing stages.

Binding brands and networks

The explosion of brands integrated into programming over the past few years has triggered a landslide of co-branded programming promotions -- think Home Depot’s co-promotion of NBC’s The Apprentice or Dodge’s on-air promotions of TNT’s Wanted, premiering July 31. But this signals a new tack -- using subtle integration that binds together a brand and a network.

“There’s a lot of that sort of stuff going on where the traditional boundaries between promo and programming stop and advertising picks up,” said Jeff Boortz, president of Concrete Pictures, a Philadelphia-based production company that creates promos for Discovery Networks and cable operators. “That kind of dividing line used to be very sacred. Now it’s blurred in the interest of helping the advertiser stay interested.”

But he cautions there must be a logical fit between product and the program. He worked on a promo for Discovery Networks that integrated Proctor & Gamble’s Swiffer floor cleaning product into an on-air ad for TLC’s Town Haul. The promo never came to fruition because, he said, the show was actually more focused on exterior renovation, while Swiffer is an indoor product.

More difficult

And integrating a brand into a network promo can be more difficult than working it into a spot that only promotes a program, Mr. Boortz said. “That’s a bolder move than a program connection.”

Comedy Central, meanwhile, is a veteran at offering brands a chance to marry themselves to the network’s promotional efforts, co-promoting everything from comedy tours to original programming to sweepstakes.

“We don’t do a lot of reality-type shows like Survivor, where you can put a hamburger in it,” said Mitch Fried, senior vice president for promotion marketing at Comedy Central, part of Viacom. “So we do much of our integration with promos.” It works, he said, as long as the network doesn’t compromise its own identity -- the promos and integration have to be funny.

Its efforts range from understated -- a can of Sierra Mist is subtly presented in a spot promoting satirical comedy Stella -- to the blatantly obvious “shameless promo weekend,” when products were hawked in Comedy Central promos all weekend. “There was such a sense of irony everyone loved it," Mr. Fried said.

As for SciFi’s Mr. Stotsky, he has his own gauge: “Ultimately, we believe, regardless of the Audi communication, this is a great piece of brand communication for SciFi. And if we can achieve that, I think consumers will respond favorably.”

Most of such arrangements are not individual buys but part of a greater volume deal an advertiser has struck with a network.

And the industry is likely to see more marriages like the SciFi-Audi one as advertisers continue to try to create stronger associations with networks and their programs. The key, according to ad execs, is for a network to have a strong brand that can lend its equity to an advertiser. USA Network’s new re-branding campaign, called “Characters Welcome,” for example, focuses on expressing individuality and non-conformism-attributes that could be attractive to consumer brands in such categories as autos or credit cards.
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