Real Brands Integrated into Hoax Show

The Secret Story of the 'Invasion Iowa' Project

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LOS ANGELES -- Invasion Iowa will go down in the books as a TV reality show production so secret that even its sponsors weren't told the truth about the program's real premise or particulars.

William Shatner studies native Iowans up close in their own habitat.

Invasion Iowa, which airs miniseries-style all week on Spike TV, is best described as Project Greenlight meets Punk'd. It's a reality show built on a ruse, tricking the residents of a small town in Iowa into thinking a real Hollywood film -- a sci-fi movie starring William Shatner -- is being shot in their community and employing locals to work on the production.

Coors, Combe, Priceline and Camacho

Producers of the show landed branded entertainment deals with a number of venerable marketers -- Coors Brewing Co.'s Coors Light; Combe Inc.'s Aqua Velva, Brylcreem and Just for Men;; and Caribe's Camacho cigars -- who initially weren't told the full production details of the reality hoax.

Residents of Riverside, Iowa (pop. 924), were told that a movie called Invasion Iowa would be filmed in their town for 10 days and that townspeople would be hired as cast and crew members.

The producers, instead, were filming a TV show about how the locals reacted when a bunch of stereotypical Hollywood characters invaded their Heartland town. And they stacked the deck for dramatic effect: They cast a dumb blonde bombshell who couldn't remember her lines as the make-believe movie's co-star and amped up Mr. Shatner's already over-the-top persona.

As they approached marketers, producers created another hoax. They told potential brand partners that the show was called Liftoff, was set in Ohio and focused on the making of a comedy feature film.

William Shatner studies native Iowans up close in their own habitat.

There was no script, and Mr. Shatner's participation was kept a secret. (They shopped the project before Mr. Shatner's recent Emmy win for Boston Legal.)

That strategy backfired with some marketers, however.

Lost sponsor

A major auto manufacturer, wanting to be involved, did some of its own snooping. An executive called Spike TV inquiring about Liftoff only to be told that no such project existed. They quietly stopped talks with the producers.

While that deal slipped through their fingers, the producers said they had to keep the details on the down-low.

"We couldn't let word get out about the real premise of the show," said Van Vandegrift, executive producer at Matrixx, a Los Angeles-based production and brand integration company that married the marketers with the show. "It would've been too much of a risk."

Only after the field narrowed to about 10 marketers seriously interested in the project did the producers come clean.

Though they held back some of the particulars until the last minute, producers gave the advertisers significant control over how their brands are portrayed in the show. They guaranteed certain things such as the number of times a product would be on camera, how it would be used and how many times it would be mentioned. That level of input is unusual in TV.

William Shatner studies native Iowans up close in their own habitat.

Product placement executive

They even created a "product placement executive" as part of the film crew and hired a local resident for the job. The man, often seen wearing a T-shirt during the show, was told to work several sponsors into the fictional indie movie. He does so in a way that would make any marketer happy -- he strips a local bar of any competitor signage and remakes it with exclusively Coors Light paraphernalia for a shoot; he replaces people's cigarettes with Camacho cigars; and slaps Aqua Velva on anyone within arm's reach.

Combe, whose products include Just for Men, Cepacol and Lanacane, took over Aqua Velva and Brylcreem a few years ago with an eye toward relaunching the venerable brands whose vintage marketing slogans were once as familiar as McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" is today.

"We wanted to make them more relevant, especially for people who don't know them from their marketing heritage," said Steve Berger, vice president and director of media planning at Combe. "We're going after younger guys, and Spike is great for that."

Mr. Berger wasn't upset about the producers' hoax because he had so much creative input into the finished show.

'Gave us exactly what they promised'

"We had enough information to go on so that we were comfortable," Mr. Berger said. "And we got to see the show in advance so there were no surprises. They gave us exactly what they promised to give us."

Mr. Berger, whose company has done little brand integration in the past, said he was most concerned with the way his products would be used.

"The show's a hoax, but our brands are real," he said. "The way it's handled, the brands fit very nicely into the script. They weren't the butt of a joke."

Combe, already a media spender on Spike, redirected some of its ads to Invasion Iowa, surrounding the integration with its traditional marketing message.

Familiar with duping people

Invasion Iowa's producers are familiar with duping people. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick from Reese Wernick Productions, co-creators and executive producers, also created The Joe Schmo Show for Spike TV.

Other Iowa executive producers include Mr. Shatner; Gary Benz, president-CEO of GRB Entertainment; and Mr. Vandegrift, whose company, Matrixx, hooked up Motorola and Nextel with A&E's Growing Up Gotti, and the upscale retailer Chopard with NBC's $25 Million Hoax.

The two-hour finale of Invasion Iowa airs, appropriately, on April Fool's Day.
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