Anatomy of an Ad Break: 'The Walking Dead,' Guts and Glory

Marketers Can't Get Enough of AMC's Gruesome, Toothsome 'The Walking Dead'

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Michonne (Danai Gurira) in 'The Walking Dead.'
Michonne (Danai Gurira) in 'The Walking Dead.' Credit: Gene Page/AMC

It takes a lot of guts for a marketer to align itself with TV's goriest show, and Sunday's episode of "The Walking Dead" illustrated that point in the most excruciatingly literal fashion.

At the midway point of the episode titled "Spend," a minor character is set upon by hungry ghouls, who proceed to turn him inside-out. If the scene required a certain amount of, well, intestinal fortitude to endure -- it was arguably the most graphic representation of death in the series' 65-episode history -- it didn't scare off at least one fast food restaurant.

Two minutes and forty seconds after the zombies tucked into their bloody feast, a Burger King promotion gleefully (if unwittingly) called back to the carnage, as a chicken nugget was shown making its inexorable descent into a container of brownish-red dipping sauce. People: The other white meat!

As near-adjacencies go, it wasn't the most jarring juxtaposition; that honor goes to the Season 3 episode that cut from a frenzied evisceration straight to a KFC spot featuring a similarly sanguinary sauce. AMC has been extremely vigilant about preventing any further unfortunate adjacencies, which goes a long way toward explaining why last night's Burger King spot aired in the middle of the commercial pod rather than in the "A" or "B" position at the front end of the pod.

If nothing else, the fact that food and quick-service restaurant brands are willing to risk a certain amount of exposure to blood and guts is testament to the power of "The Walking Dead" as a means to reach young viewers. Per Nielsen, the show is now averaging a 7.4 in the adults 18-49 demo, making it the highest-rated scripted series on TV. (As each ratings point equals 1% of the population of 18-to-49-year-olds, that 7.4 translates to 9.4 million advertiser-targeted viewers. By way of comparison, broadcast's top drama, "Empire," is averaging a 4.8, or around 6.1 million members of the demo.)

Traffic jam
While the latest installment of "The Walking Dead" was uncharacteristically low on food ads (Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have thrown their weight behind the show, while McDonald's has bought time in local markets), two Dr. Pepper spots appeared over the course of the hour. But it was the automotive category that carried the day, and the post-evisceration pod served as a microcosm of the hour.

After the 4-minute pod opened with two jokey spots from State Farm and, a 30-second ad for the Infiniti 250 was slotted immediately alongside a :30 for the Ram 1500 pickup.

As it so happens, these were local buys -- AMC limits its auto avails to one per pod. The lone national auto commercial, a 15-second Mini Cooper spot featuring Spike the bulldog, ran in the eighth of the pod's 10 ad/promo units.

All told, eight auto ads ran during the episode, accounting for 3 minutes and 45 seconds, or 22% of the 17 minutes and 40 seconds of overall commercial time. Tech was a close second, with a load of seven spots that included a 60-second teaser for the Apple Watch and three ads for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet. Microsoft is also the presenting sponsor of the weekly "scenes from the next 'Walking Dead'" segment.

AMC also ran eight in-house promos, which accounted for just two minutes of the episode's overall spot load. Most visible were spots for "Better Call Saul," "Turn: Washington's Spies" and the postgame show "Talking Dead."

Telco, insurance, movies, videogames and one off-network promo (for the CW's upcoming "iZombie") ate up the remainder of the spot load. It's an eclectic mix of categories and brands, one that acknowledges the huge live audience "The Walking Dead" delivers week-in and week-out, and, more specifically, the youthful nature of said audience.

Based on estimates furnished by media buyers last fall, a 30-second spot in "The Walking Dead" fetched around $415,000 a pop during the 2014-15 upfront bazaar. Given that figure and the ad load, and disregarding the certain pricing increases for clients buying time in the scatter market, there were at least $12.5 million in ad dollars stacked up in and around last night's installment of "The Walking Dead."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said AMC ran commercials for Infiniti and Ram in the same ad pod. Those ads were both actually local buys; AMC doesn't run more than one auto brand in the same batch of commercials.

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