Deja Voodoo: ESPN Goes Old-School with a 'Live' Commercial in 'SportsCenter'

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ESPN is firing up the retro marketing machine with a new initiative that will introduce live commercials into its "SportsCenter" telecasts. A nod to the early days of TV, when presenters would vamp for a sponsor on the set rather than throw to a taped advertisement, ESPN's foray into live spots began Tuesday night with "SportsCenter" anchor Kenny Mayne's pitch for Fruit of the Loom.

Viewers who tuned into the 11:30 p.m. ET installment of "SportsCenter" were treated to Mayne extolling the virtues of Fruit of the Loom's fleece sweats with his signature Gobi-dry understatement. "This is our first-ever live commercial on 'SportsCenter,'" Mayne said at the top of the show's first ad break. "Full disclosure: We taped it seven hours ago."

While Mayne's caveat was exaggerated for comic effect -- the 37-second effort was shot shortly before air time, during the closing minutes of ESPN's premiere of "Nature Boy," its 30 for 30 doc on grappler Ric Flair -- the network said it aims to present all forthcoming "live" spots in real-time.

Mayne, who over the last few years has emerged as the MVP of ESPN's annual upfront presentation (this spring, he brought the house down with a self-penned riff that was at once sacred and profane), told Ad Age on Tuesday that he relishes the work he does for the network's sales team. "I'm honored and flattered that they want me in that role," he said. "I'm a child of the TV age and I've always seen both the commercials and the programming as one big thing. So it's especially great when people have that 'let's just do something a little weird and really good and have some fun' ethos."

Unorthodox marketing has long been part of the Fruit of the Loom DNA. In the mid-1970s, Grey Advertising introduced the "Fruit of the Loom Guys," a clutch of classically-trained shills dressed in costumes designed to bring the brand's century-old logo to life. (Among the familiar faces to appear in those giddy Carter-era spots include "Happy Days" star Al Molinaro as the apple and Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham as the brown leaf.)

The "SportsCenter" execution is part of Fruit of the Loom's broader "Sweet in Sweats" campaign, which includes a pair of newly-developed digital spots. Crispin Porter & Bogusky serves as the brand's creative agency.

The latest salvo in the never-ending battle to dissuade TV viewers from skipping out on the ads, live commercials tend to reemerge in cycles. This February, Snickers rolled the dice on a live spot that aired during Fox's presentation of the year's most-watched TV event: Super Bowl LI. NBC in 2016 incorporated live messaging for Oreo, Toyota and Reddi-wip into its broadcast of the musical "Hairspray Live," and that same year saw Target sponsor a four-minute real-time Emmy Awards break featuring singer Gwen Stefani.

Preceding this recent flurry of live executions was the 2008 boomlet, which saw late-night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno give the so-old-it's-new-again format a whirl. Of course, there are inherent risks to attempting a live marketing pitch, as evidenced by this classic clip from the "Tonight Show": Unless you've got a Johnny Carson waiting in the wings, the potential for calamity is never far off.

Which isn't to suggest that Mayne didn't ace his opening serve. After suggesting that he was likely to go off-script ("I'll probably ad-lib a bit"), he wound up delivering a kicker that was a vast improvement over the line ("You've got the voice of an angel, Jim") that closed out the original shooting script. "That's what a live commercial looks like," he deadpanned, as the network prepared to throw to the first official ad break.

Along with NFL Network, CBS and ABC, ESPN is one of Fruit of the Loom's biggest TV buys. Including the "live" Mayne reading, the brand since the year began has aired 320 spots on ESPN, with a good chunk of those buys showing up in "SportsCenter." Fruit of the Loom also has been a sponsor of the X Games for three years running.

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