Jean Rossi & David Raines

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Fox's "American Idol" pulled off an extraordinary feat: It survived, and more amazingly for a new TV show, it thrived.

This souped-up, contemporary version of an old-fashioned talent competition became summer 2002's pop culture phenomenon and the latest example of a major national advertiser artfully weaving its products into the fabric of a program. Reflecting the explosion of such partnerships in 2002, "American Idol" and its pioneer partnership with Coca-Cola Co. has won Advertising Age`s Entertainment Marketers of the Year award in the Madison + Vine category.

The roots of "American Idol" date back to December 2001, when Creative Artists Agency, a consultant to Coca-Cola Co., alerted Coke VP David Raines to a hot British show, "Pop Idol." CAA believed the program was ripe for importation to the U.S. and could match with Coke, with its primary 12-to-24-year-old target. Shortly thereafter, Fox Exec VP-Sales Jean Rossi and Coke's media buyer, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York, approached the soft-drink marketer about a product integration and advertising deal around "American Idol."

The pitch of News Corp.'s Fox was to present "American Idol" not as an opportunity for blatant product placement, which can alienate viewers if too heavy-handed. "Advertisers don't want their brand to look like it's being thrown in-especially to this demographic. You can really turn them off," acknowledges Ms. Rossi, 47, who recently added the new title of president of Fox's integrated sales group.


Coke was cautious, but intrigued. "You have to be selective because it's not inexpensive to get involved with a show like this," says Mr. Raines, 42. "It had all the right elements. It was part `Survivor'... part `Star Search' and part `The Gong Show."'

Of course, Coke and Fox struck a deal, the details of which neither company will reveal. Despite a then-soft ad market, Fox refused to parcel off the show to lower-tier advertisers, according to Ms. Rossi, restricting it to only two major ad categories-soft drinks and automotive- during the first season. Since the debut season, Fox has added more sponsors, such as AT&T Wireless as its exclusive telecom sponsor, in addition to deals with Procter & Gamble Co. for Herbal Essences shampoo and retail chain Old Navy. Fox was also able to up the ante, pricing an integrated marketing package at $26 million (AA, Oct. 14), although executives from first-season sponsors Coke and Ford Motor Co. say they paid nowhere near that, seeing they committed early on.

Commercials for Coke, along with fellow sponsor Ford, appeared throughout "American Idol" during season one. But what sets Coke apart is how its products became part of the show-with contestants hanging out in the "Coca-Cola Red Room," a waiting area with red couches adorned with Coke's "dynamic ribbon" design, and judges slugging back Cokes as they evaluated singers.

Fox had a megahit. The series' first-season two-part finale, which aired on Sept. 3 and 4, drew a total of 22.8 million viewers. It made Coke's Mr. Raines prescient, and the sponsorship deal, a bargain.

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