Colbert Brings 'Sponsortunities' to CBS for Brands That Can Handle It

New Late-Night Cohort Much More Open Than Letterman and Leno

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Stephen Colbert making it easy for retroactive product placement in reruns of his show.
Stephen Colbert making it easy for retroactive product placement in reruns of his show. Credit: Comedy Central

Stephen Colbert's jump to CBS solidifies the new regime in broadcast late-night, and with it a group of funny men who are embracing advertisers.

Mr. Colbert has more than proved he is willing to work brand integrations into his show, referring to product placements as "sponsortunity." And while his mocking of brands can pose some risk to marketers, it's one they are willing to take.

Mr. Colbert, along with NBC's Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, represent a new guard of late-night hosts who are embracing edgy and innovative brand integrations. "All of the new guys are of the mindset that this is the way it works now," said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.

"That's what the landscape is moving towards … and Colbert fits right in," said Steve Kalb, senior VP and director of national broadcast, Mullen.

Mr. Kimmel brought live commercials to his show in 2008, and Jimmy Fallon partnered with General Electric when he took over "The Tonight Show" in February, hosting a branded segment with children showcasing inventions.

This stands in contrast to predecessors like CBS' David Letterman and NBC's Jay Leno, who were reluctant, especially toward the end of their careers, to include integrations in their shows in the same way, according to media buyers.

The new men of late-night also have a substantial social following in which to extend sponsorships. Mr. Colbert boasts over 6 million Twitter followers, while Mr. Letterman has just 286,000.

The new hosts often play a part in conceiving how a sponsorship plays out on the air, media buyers said. The approach helps make the integrations entertaining for viewers, but the advertisers sometimes don't see the finished approach until the day before it airs live, leaving little time for course corrections. "It's a big leap of faith," said Steve Kalb, senior VP and director of national broadcast, Mullen.

For these types of integrations, brands typically only provide some details regarding what they want to highlight, with little other involvement.

Kraft experienced this first hand with its Wheat Thins integration in "The Colbert Report" in February 2012. Mr. Colbert spent seven minutes during his program mercilessly mocking the memo Kraft sent him to prepare him for the integration.

While it was a risk, ultimately Kraft executives said they were happy with the attention they received.

And for the most part, Mr. Kalb said, the hosts are sensitive of protecting the brand.

Although there's no estimate on the revenue "The Colbert Report" receives from deep brand integrations, the show saw revenue from traditional commercials rise 10% last year to $59.8 million, according to Kantar Media. While that pales in comparison to Mr. Letterman's "Late Show," which brought in $126.9 million in 2013, "Late Show" lost about 10% of its ad dollars from 2012.

Here's a look at some of Stephen Colbert's integrations, sponsorships and discussions of the subject:

Mirriad (January 2014): Mr. Colbert aired a segment on Mirriad Chairman Roger Faxon showing off his company's technology, which creates retroactive product placements, on Fox Business. Mr. Colbert noted that Comedy Central parent, Viacom, has a deal with Mirriad, and shows his support by providing blank surfaces for future integrations.

Hyundai (August 2013): "The Colbert Report" booked French electronic music duo Daft Punk for its annual summer concert series, StePhest Colbchella, which was being sponsored by Hyundai. But when Daft Punk was forced to pull out at the last minute by corporate sibling MTV, Mr. Colbert found a way to work the group into his show and repeatedly name-drop Hyundai. The episode gave more buzz to Hyundai then an actual appearance by Daft Punk would have likely generated.

Wheat Thins (February 2012): Mr. Colbert devoted the entire middle-third of "The Colbert Report" to mocking a Wheat Thins brand memo he received to prepare him for the product placement. Despite the ragging, Wheat Thins owner Kraft, ultimately loved the attention.

Dr. Pepper Flavor Zone (June 2011): Mr. Colbert makes fun of corporate sponsored indie-rock festivals by way of introducing his own summer music festival -- "StePhest Colbchella '011: Rock You Like a Thirst-Icane, Brought to You by Dr Pepper."

Doritos (2008): Doritos sponsored Mr. Colbert's 2008 mock-presidential run, which he dubbed "Hail to the Cheese: Stephen Colbert's Nacho Cheese Doritos 2008 Presidential Campaign."

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