'Dexter' vs. 'True Blood': The Battle of Two Killer Media Plans

Optimedia's Antony Young Analyzes the Media Strategies Behind Two Cable Thrillers

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Antony Young
Antony Young
The all-important upfront presentations, where the major broadcast and cable networks introduce next season's prime-time schedule and tease new shows for ad buyers, have been taking place all week in New York. We media buyers try to figure out how well each show is going to rate, considering factors such as the program's characters, the writing and the competing shows on rival networks' just-announced schedules. Too often however, buyers overlook another element that's just as important to ratings success: how a show is promoted.

Two shows whose marketing has stood out in recent years, however, don't even have commercial time for marketers and their agencies to buy: Showtime's "Dexter" and HBO's "True Blood."

Each show's promotion has been as edgy as its content. Both developed media programs that captured interest, created buzz and drove ratings for their premium cable networks. "Dexter's" premiere-season viral campaign let people create fake news reports naming a friend as the Ice Truck Killer's next victim. I thought last season's "True Blood" vampire-themed out-of-home campaign featuring real-life brands such as Geico, Gillette, Monster.com and Mini was ground-breaking.

We evaluated "Dexter's" fourth season, which premiered last September, and the upcoming third season of "True Blood," which premieres June 13.

Creative executions

For the uninitiated, "Dexter" revolves around a forensic blood-splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department (Michael C. Hall) who's got a double life: He's also a sympathetic serial killer whose victims are killers themselves. "True Blood" is set in Bon Temps, a fictional small town in Louisiana where vampires and humans co-exist. It features Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic bar waitress, vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and an ensemble of characters.

What's notable about both shows' media campaigns is that they both go far beyond the conventional tactic of relying primarily on TV to promote TV, adding a wide range of ambient, viral, social and buzz-based media tactics to drive audience interest.

Marketing for "Dexter" as it entered its fourth season centered on two main ideas. First, the next phase of the lead character's life is marriage and a newborn son. Shots of his baby with killer-themed bibs, such as "cereal spiller" or "a chop off the old block," for example, featured in its creative. Second, they also introduced John Lithgow, who would play a new serial killer on the scene.

In the buildup to season three, "True Blood" looked to build anticipation with fans through a series of teaser posters such as one headlined said "VILF," a play on the phrase MILF (I admit I had to Google it), and another picturing a coffee pot filled with blood under the headline, "Nothing like a good cup of Joe."

"True Blood" also created original video content: minisodes developed by show creator Alan Ball with the end line "waiting sucks" ... a nice alternative to the usual promotional trailers.


5 stars Outstanding
4 stars Highly effective
3 stars Good
2 stars Disappointing
1 star A disaster

Video strategy

Dexter 4 stars
True Blood 4 stars

Both shows expertly ran a combination of video on- and off-channel with a combination of edited trailers and original content.

Showtime ran two TV spots featuring Dexter's new home life and introducing John Lithgow's character. About half of the paid TV schedule ran on network, with the balance in cable and spot. In total, they booked about $1 million across television.

Showtime also created a special YouTube advergame. Viewers had to click on a section of the screen where Dexter appears, and after four stages the user got an exclusive glimpse of an extended series four trailer. Showtime released "Dexter: Early Cuts," a series of animated webisodes exploring how Dexter honed his killing craft. And in a real coup for YouTube, Showtime looked to expand trial for the pay channel show by making available the full-length season premiere on the site for free for two weeks.

"True Blood" launched its season three teaser trailer last week during the season finale of CW's "Vampire Diaries." And back on April 26, HBO started releasing a series of weekly mini episodes, titled "A Drop of True Blood," on Yahoo TV. The first features Eric and Pam as they audition new dancers for the vampire bar Fangtasia. After running on Yahoo, the minisodes were posted on HBO.com, and the "True Blood" Facebook page, and they later ran on the HBO network itself.

Online media strategy

Dexter 3 stars
True Blood 4 1/2 stars

"Dexter" is on Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook page features a wall, series information, message boards for fans and fan-created art dedicated to all things "Dexter." It also features a link to the Showtime store, where fans can purchase all sorts of "Dexter" gear. The Twitter page offers fans updates on new episodes, upcoming events and contests and promotions, including an art contest seeking "Dexter" art for display at the annual Comic-Con in San Diego.

Banner ads for "Dexter" ran on a number of entertainment-based sites, including E! Online, Atom Films, Comedy Central, Gizmodo, Gawker, Smoking Gun and Rotten Tomatoes.

Online media promoting the new season of "True Blood" includes true-blood.net, the existing HBO fan site; the official Twitter page; @bonTempsGossip, which tweets town gossip, featured leaks and teasers; and a number of pages set up by fans, including, for example, @SookieBonTemps which now has some 16,756 followers.

The official "True Blood" Facebook fan page has over 1.4 million fans, in addition to many different character and actor fan pages, highlighting recent news, previewing the upcoming season and hosting message boards.

Events and out-of-home

Dexter 3 1/2 stars
True Blood 4 stars

The "Dexter" marketing began two months out with a big presence at Comic-Con last year. The show ran a massive out-of-home campaign with Dexter's baby displayed on bags, banners, buses and pedi-cabs riding through the Gas Lamp district of San Diego. Showtime also used Comic-Con to promote a contest for a walk-on role in season five. The Dexter panel proved very popular, with Michael C. Hall, John Lithgow, other cast members, writers and producers all in attendance.

Showtime then held other promotional events in New York timed to the Dexter premiere. One such example, on September 23, was at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Chelsea, which hosted a premiere screening and cocktail party. The Vanderbilt taxi stand in Grand Central terminal showcased a custom art mosaic consisting of 4,500 blood slides (Dexter keeps drops of his victims' blood under microscope slides) hand-painted to form Dexter's image.

For "True Blood," HBO is planning June 1 movie-theater gatherings in 50 cities across the county "to celebrate the vampires, fangbangers, shapeshifters and 'weres in us all," as the "True Blood" Facebook page and associated app puts it to fans. Those "VILF," "Cup of Joe" and other posters are also appearing on outdoor locations in the run-up to the new season premiere.


Dexter 3 1/2 stars
True Blood 2 stars

"Dexter" did a nice promotion in conjunction with Details magazine and retailer Lord & Taylor, creating a "Killer" fashion contest offering the winner a three-night trip to Miami and a $1,000 shopping spree at Lord & Taylor. Details also ran a "Killer fashion" spread in its October issue with various "dress to kill" tips. And "Dexter" ran September insertions in Entertainment Weekly, People, Us Weekly, Maxim, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Wired.

At the time of this writing, it's still a little early to see the full extent of the "True Blood" print advertising plan for season three. In past years, it has run insertions in Entertainment Weekly, Us Weekly, TV Guide, GQ, Details, Wired, Rolling Stone, Glamour and Vanity Fair. So far this year, "True Blood" took to the June issue of Playboy to sponsor a 3-D centerfold of the Playmate of the Year complete with cardboard 3-D glasses, a 3-D gatefold ad on the reverse and a 2-D "True Blood"-themed "Data Sheet" on the Playmate. I didn't get this, other than the PR value of the 3-D opportunity.


Dexter 2 1/2 stars
True Blood 3 1/2 stars

Showtime started selling drink coasters which are glass slides with victims' blood samples. There were neat "Dexter"-themed baby bibs also on sale. But HBO topped this effort last year by actually selling the once-fictional synthetic drink Tru Blood as a blood orange carbonated soft drink -- still on sale as season three approaches. A comic book series adaption of the show has been developed and written by Alan Ball and will launch in July.


Dexter 4 stars
True Blood N/A

For "Dexter," Showtime created a $5.99 iPhone game that encourages users to analyze crime scenes and uncover evidence. Fans with or without smartphones can also sign up for text alerts, trivia and text-based games. One example is "Dexter's Spatter Matter," in which you try your hand at spatter analysis and try to determine which murder weapon was used.


Dexter 4 stars
True Blood 4 1/2 stars

"Dexter" put together its strongest campaign yet for the fourth season. Its visibility at Comic-Con kicked off a lot of good buzz for the show. The creative worked consistently to sell the new season, and it really got its video strategy right. A combination of a solid broadcast TV schedule, some nice content around YouTube and a very well-placed print campaign drove a very effective campaign. Season-average ratings came in 50% higher than the previous season.

The media strategy for "True Blood" to date has done a brilliant job in activating its fan base, anchored by a very savvy execution of a video and online program. I like how HBO used Yahoo TV and other video sites to seed some very edgy original content to a wide audience. The creative work and how it has been rolled out has kept this campaign fresh and unpredictable. "Dexter" was a great and very effective campaign, "True Blood" just seemed to have more legs and imagination. I predict another strong season from the Bon Temps vampire community.

Research and data compiled by Nora Scullin at Optimedia.

Antony Young is CEO of Optimedia US -- a Publicis Groupe owned media planning & buying agency, headquartered in New York. He is a regular contributor for on brand media strategy for Advertising Age. He can now be followed on Twitter @antonyyoung.
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