Coming To A Store Near You: Network TV Promo

By Lucy Cohen

The U.S. Networks have jumped off your home TV screens and into a supermarket, clothing store and fast-food chain near you.

Due to a percentage decrease of money available for promotion and the invention of more technologically-savvy ways to keep the public occupied and away from the small screen, the networks have resorted to advertising programming outside their on-air realm and in stores, in exchange for on-air time slots for retailers. The time when on-air promos provided sufficient advertising for TV networks is long gone.

The same issue currently faces the film industry, as well. With movies 28 percent more costly to promote this year compared to just last year, the film companies are jumping into stores to generate a buzz and build barter deals with retailers. Recently, Scooby Doo 2 images were branded on Burger King as part of a partnership between the fast-food chain and the tyke-targeted film.

Jason Haikara, senior vice president of marketing at Fox, explained that the popularity of off-air advertising in the industry is a product of a changing environment. “Nowadays, there is a greater need for eyeballs. We need to reach people where they are and today there are more places to reach them,” he said. “Whether online or with their cell phones, we need to be more creative in how we reach people.”
This past TV season featured some of the biggest off-air advertising deals ever created, with each of the Big Six networks launching ad campaigns valued at a reported $15-20 million.

CBS and ABC, two of the more troubled nets, invested in the largest off-air marketing campaigns.

One of the biggest deals to date, which transpired during the fall, was between long-standing chums ABC and McDonald’s. Valued at $20 million, the deal allowed for ABC show signage in 14,000 of the Golden Arches’ restaurants. ABC used this method of advertising, after finishing last place in ratings among the major four networks, to market its TGIF lineup, which included “George Lopez,” “Life with Bonnie,” and freshman series “Married to the Kellys” and “Hope and Faith.” In exchange, McDonald’s ad campaign “I’m Loving It” surfaced during ABC’s night programming.

CBS and Blockbuster got in on the off-net advertising action, too, with Blockbuster stores featuring a free 90-minute “sneak peek” DVD, featuring CBS’s fall season. The alliance is, of course, no surprise, as both companies are owned by Viacom. The DVD was paid for by GMC, General Motors’ truck division, and featured one 30-second product advertisement and two long-form ads - one 30 and the other two minutes long - which focused on GMC in general. The creation of a deal like this is not only valuable to the net, as it creates a three-way win-win situation, which benefits the nets, the stores and the sponsors as well. Tom Beaman, manager of communications at the Pontiac-GMC division of General Motors, explained his company’s interest in pairing up with CBS, “We’ve determined that the audience for these particular shows matches our potential buyers. We are using traditional and more untraditional methods of advertising to reach those buyers. We are always looking to expand the channels we use to achieve our main goal, which is to sell trucks.”
NBC’s programs promotion have jumped from the small screen to the big screen and continue to be advertised in Regal Cinemas as “protainment,” pre-movie advertising promos.

Fox relied on off-air marketing to promote freshman series The O.C., as well as old-timers 24 and American Idol. A major deal with Internet-provider, AOL, surrounded the August launch of Fox’s new Orange County, CA-based primetime soap. A 40-second music video clip appeared during a break on The O.C. with a message explaining that the rest of the video could be viewed on AOL. Ford also signed a mammoth-sized deal with 24 and, for the second year in a row, the car company sponsored a commercial-free season premier. In exchange, Fox enclosed a CD within the pages of People and Entertainment Weekly, featuring almost 30 minutes of interviews about the relationship between Ford and the program, and showcasing Ford’s newest automobiles. American Idol, the net’s force to be reckoned with, has brought off-air advertising to the next level by partnering with Ford, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Old-Navy, Herbal Essences, Subway and Nokia, without neglecting more traditional methods such as in-store advertising, billboards, sweepstakes executions, radio promotions, direct-mail marketing and email marketing. Ryan Seacrest, host of the show, has become official an official spokesperson for AT&T and the company has included in-store advertising. Old Navy has done the same and brought it up a notch, with American Idol logos appearing on T-shirts, buttons and cup-holders. Fox’s Haikara explained that his network uses this type of advertising for pilots as well as established series. “I think that off-air advertising can work for new or established shows as long as it’s promoting something new.”

Though these deals kicked into high gear last fall, both ABC and CBS’s arrangements began in 2002. ABC and McDonald’s began their off-net partnership during the fall of 2002, in promotion of the net’s “Happy Hour” (8:00 p.m. -9:00 p.m.) slot aimed at the family demographic. The hour of programming was advertised in McDonald’s with posters, drive-thru window signs, bags and tray liners. Only 13,000 stores participated in that year’s deal, with 1,000 more stores partaking in the deal the following year. Blockbuster carried a CBS pilot DVD in 2002 as well, but lacked the corporate sponsorship it would get from GM the next year. Though 2002’s deals set the stage for the larger 2003 deals, there is no denying that this past pilot season’s off-air ads were bigger and better than any that came before them.

Off-air network deals have not been limited to the major networks. Cable TV network The Food Network became one of only three networks whose viewers reported improved perceptions of advertising after launching off-air marketing strategies of their own in 2003. The network got creative by going beyond the stores and hitting the road, advertising Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show through an “Emeril Salutes America” tour and Al Roker’s show by having the jolly meteorologist make a guest appearance on the wildly-popular Iron Chef series.

There seems to be no limit to the advantages of off-air advertising from the perspective of the networks and, similarly, the other half of the deal - the advertisers - are banking on it as well. Advertisers serve to benefit from being mixed up with the hoopla surrounding a hit show. Fox announced that advertisements surrounding the commercial-free 24 premier produced the most positively recalled commercials. Of course, the disadvantages of becoming associated with a total flop have yet to be seen.

Americans seem to be cutting down on their TV time in lieu of other distractions, including the advent of technologies such as VoD, cell phones and the Internet, and the networks are certainly recognizing an increased need to expand beyond the TV set. “We cannot rely solely on on-air advertising anymore,” Haikara said. “The networks, advertisers [and retail stores] are seeing the same challenges and can help each other.”