The Biz: Money talks in new USA, NBC efforts

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Money talks, and now promotes as well. This month a couple of savvy media and ad agencies are capitalizing on the green stuff's ability to get people talking. Dollar bills are the medium being used by independent media specialty company The Media Kitchen and by The NBC Agency, East Coast, to reach viewers for new TV shows.

The Media Kitchen, New York, affixed 50,000 one-dollar bills with peel-off stickers stamped with the air date, time and channel of "Traffic: the Miniseries" to promote the three-part special for its client, USA Network. The bills went into circulation Jan. 8 at bars in New York and Los Angeles.

"Money is central to the series' plot," said Paul Woolmington, chairman, The Media Kitchen. "Money lures people into this world of illegal trafficking, which is not just about drugs, but also goods, weapons and even human beings, which is the series' focus. So money seemed a perfect medium."

Rather than use the real thing, marketers at The NBC Agency, the in-house ad-and-promotion shop of network NBC and its various cable entities, printed 5,000 fake $100 bills featuring the likeness of mogul-cum-reality TV star Donald Trump, in the center to promote NBC's "The Apprentice." One side of each bill looks very much like a real $100 bill. Ten-person street teams handed out the fake bills at strategic venues in New York City two days prior to the show's Jan. 8 debut, through Jan. 13. Money made sense as a promotional tool because "it's a medium significantly associated with the person who is so much of what we are trying to promote," explained Frank Radice, senior VP-advertising and promotion, The NBC Agency.

Both money-centered efforts aimed to generate word-of-mouth buzz. "We're trying to reach influencers," Media Kitchen's Mr. Woolmington said. "The L.A. and New York crowds are the entertainment vultures." The NBC Agency, which focused its bill distribution in Times Square, the Rockefeller Center area, and Wall Street, aimed at a slightly different crowd: tourists. "We felt we'd offer tourists a taste of New York as well as a taste of Donald Trump, who is synonymous with New York," Mr. Radice said.

Competition for viewers, especially of new shows, is tough, so networks need to find new ways to gain awareness. "With so many options available to TV viewers, on-air promotions can only do so much," said Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast for Carat USA. The bar-and-street efforts, he said, are "a smart way to get out in front of people and further promote the show. It makes me know the network is doing whatever it can to make its shows a success."

Of course, promotions that use legal tender or its likeness require some special attention. Media Kitchen and client USA Network took care to treat the actual bills with care and not deface them. And of course, lawyers were involved. "We had ours look into it and make sure it was okay," said Sarah Beatty, senior VP-marketing, USA Network. "We thought this was a fresh way to promote a show, but we wanted to do it legally and responsibly."

hard to measure

Measuring both viral efforts' effectiveness is not really possible. "Part of it is qualitative," Ms. Beatty said. "We monitor the press pickup of the buzz program, we interview people in the bars that participated." Mr. Radice figures that generating attention is success. "As long as we can generate a buzz, that's good." Both NBC and USA Network are deploying other advertisements in print, outdoor and broadcast, to promote their shows in addition to their money-related programs.

These efforts, while unusual, are not the first time that money's been used to make a point. In 1952, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were still known as being from Brooklyn, the team spent spring training in Vero Beach, Florida. The town mayor suggested that team's presence was not beneficial to the 4,000-population town, and when Dodger owners got wind of that, they stamped 20,000 two-dollar bills with "Brooklyn Dodgers" and rallied every player to the cause. Over one weekend, the team spent the money. "It was put into circulation to prove a point," said Los Angeles Dodgers team historian Mark Langill. Fifty-two years later, spring training is still held in Vero Beach.

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