As ABC Nears Oscars Sell-Out, More Brands View It as the Place to Break New Ads

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Host Jimmy Kimmel in an Oscar promo.
Host Jimmy Kimmel in an Oscar promo. Credit: ABC

ABC says it's 98 percent sold out of commercial time in its Oscars telecast— "way ahead" of where it was at the equivalent time last year, says Rita Ferro, president of sales at Disney-ABC TV Group.

The network said in 2017 that it had sold out of commercial time for the broadcast on Feb. 18, eight days before the show aired on Feb. 26. This year the Oscars will air on March 4 to steer clear of this month's Winter Olympics.

Ferro says she wants to elevate Oscars advertising in the eyes of marketers and consumers to make it something more like the Super Bowl, where viewers pay close attention to elaborate new commercials. But the Super Bowl remains a far bigger event, averaging 103.4 million viewers on traditional TV last Sunday. The 2017 Oscars averaged just under 33 million viewers. Nearly all of the ads airing during the Super Bowl were made specifically for the game, so the Oscars still has a ways to go to compete.

All the same, Ferro says 10 sponsors will have custom content in this year's Oscar's telecast, up from five last year, with nearly a month still to go.

Buyers represent categories including automotive, retail and beverages, says Ferro, adding that there was especially strong demand from technology and marketers in the "internet of things" category.

But the real takeaway, she says, is a focus on creative that promotes female empowerment, as marketers choose not go quietly into Hollywood's big night following numerous allegations of sexual harassment and worse against prominent celebrities and entertainment titans.

Female-focused ads would be in stark contrast with Super Bowl LII spots, which remained male-dominated again this year. In fact, Ferro says some advertisers specifically bought the Oscars, which airs just four days before International Woman's Day, to celebrate women.

"Advertisers have realized this is the right type of message and right movement to get behind," says Ferro.

Of course, with 62 percent of Oscar viewership last year consisting of women, it isn't surprising that advertisers would want to be sensitive and inclusive.

Walmart, for one, teamed up with three female creatives—writer/producer/director Nancy Meyers ("It's Complicated" and "The Holiday"); actress Melissa McCarthy; and "Mudbound" director Dee Rees—to create three short films inspired by Walmart's blue boxes.

The effort continues the big-box retailer's three-year sponsorship of the Academy Awards, which started last year when directors Antoine Fuqua ("The Magnificent Seven"), Seth Rogan and Adam Goldber ("Superbad") and Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball")—yes, all men—created short films based on a Walmart receipt. Walmart took over as the exclusive retail sponsor of the Oscars from Kohl's last year.

The company didn't set out to solely partner with female directors this time, says Kirsten Evans, senior VP of marketing at Walmart. (It began the selection process before the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted.) But the choices will stand out amid the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that will undoubtedly be prominent on the red carpet and in acceptance speeches.

Walmart has also formed a partnership with Women in Film Los Angeles, an organization that works to advance the careers of women in entertainment. As part of the partnership, up-and-coming female filmmakers will shadow Meyers, McCarthy and Rees as they create the Oscar ads for Walmart.

Advertisers don't seem concerned about recent controversies surrounding the Oscars. The lack of non-white nominees in 2016 led to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and provoked calls to boycott the telecast. And last year's show ended with what has now become known as "envelopegate," when presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly said the Best Picture winner was "La La Land" (it was really "Moonlight") after receiving the incorrect card to read.

The 2017 Oscars telecast also delivered one of the smallest audiences for the awards show in modern history. It was the second-least watched Oscars since the 2008 show hit bottom with 32 million viewers. It delivered a 9.1 rating in the core 18-to-49 demo, or 11.7 million viewers, compared to a 10.4 rating in 2016 and 10.7 in the demo in 2008.

Despite the declines, ABC has been asking for about $2.6 million for a 30-second spot, according to media buyers, though some marketers are paying closer to $2 million.

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