The Battle for the Lower Third
Broadcasting & Cable
August 12th, 2008
Viewers who settled in to watch The Incredibles on
NBC after their Thanksgiving Day meal last November no
doubt expected to see their fair share of commercials.
What they probably didn’t expect was a sight somewhat
odder than anything to do with the story of an
undercover superhero family: a Target shopping cart
trawling across the screen during the film.
Such sights are becoming more familiar by the day.
The lower third of the viewing screen, once part of the
wide-open prairie for programming, is turning into the
latest land of opportunity for Madison Avenue.
Advertisers more and more are claiming this real estate
for themselves in the ongoing fight for viewer
Burned by the advent of ad-zapping
digital-video-recorder machines, sponsors seeking new
ways to get face time during screen time have ironically
taken a page from the TV-network-promotion book. Network
marketers have been pushing the envelope with more
intrusive ad forms in their own battle against DVRs, and
advertisers are aping the practice. While some cable
networks are actively using ad bugs as a bargaining chip
in deal-making, NBC, for one, is not out selling them as
an ad unit, although it will occasionally come up with
lower-third ideas, such as the one for Target, to help
broaden a buy.
On cable, however, the practice is getting a little
out of hand. In one TBS promotion that raised eyebrows
recently, the network literally stopped an episode of
Family Guy in progress to insert a talking pop-up of
comedian Bill Engvall, who appeared to briefly promote
his show on the channel. And last month, Discovery
Channel promoted its popular “Shark Week” by
superimposing a theme-week ad on a shot of sky during an
The question for all concerned—advertisers, networks
and viewers—is quickly becoming: How much is too much?
And with screen sizes getting either smaller or clearer,
the invasions of territory will seem more magnified.
“In the days when the audience is shrinking, you have
to grow your business,” said Jak Severson, managing
partner with Los Angeles-based branded-entertainment
venture Madison Road Entertainment. Madison Road is
conducting extensive research into the value and
efficacy of lower-third ads. Some people call them bugs,
snipes, in-content messaging or, less affectionately,
obnoxicons. Severson has a more practical name for them.
“This is the last frontier,” he said.
High Potential for Lower Third
Severson likened the potential for the emerging
lower-third ad form to product placement. According to
PQ Media, the product-placement business grew 40%
between 2002-07 to $2.9 billion. The
branded-entertainment business—which includes event
sponsorship—is predicted to be worth $25.4 billion in
2008, a figure that has more than doubled in the past
Marketers’ logos are already commonplace on sports
networks such as ESPN. On its National Association for
Stock Car Auto Racing Sprint Cup coverage, for example,
sponsored scores and updates were displayed on the
bottom of the screen during races such as July’s
Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
But they’re hardly reserved for sports. TBS, TNT and
sister network truTV have also worked such deals. On
TBS, a graphic stating, “You’re watching My Boys” was
recently accompanied by an Alltel sponsor logo. And
Coca-Cola’s logo is prominently displayed on-screen
during Fox’s American Idol.
“We do a ton of lower-thirds,” a Coca-Cola
spokeswoman said, “not just our logo with the box
scores, but some interactivity to it.”
As networks increase the annual cost of ad packages,
marketers seeking the so-called value-add are
increasingly turning to ad bugs as the answer. As such,
it’s hard to put a price tag on lower-third ads, which
now fly, ironically enough, under the radar, financially
Movie studios have been among the most aggressive
users of the overlays, given their familial ties to the
networks. NBC is primed to roll out lower-third graphics
during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games for Universal
Pictures sequel The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
And 20th Century Fox’s February release, Jumper, linked
with truTV as part of a “Jump Into the Action” theme
night, which made use of the film’s animated logo.
Ad bugs are topic A on Madison Avenue, with one
unnamed media director wandering into his boss’ office a
few weeks ago to ask, “Shouldn’t we be doing this for
our clients?” Severson expects the lower-third ad
business to metastasize within the next 24 months,
adding that viewers should brace themselves for an
onslaught of corporate logos and advertising icons.
But while the potential is vast for such ads, chances
are that primetime lower-third placement won’t make the
big leap until networks truly go the way of sports by
monetizing the deals. It’s something networks have until
In an indication of how quickly the business might
progress, NBC Universal TV group chief marketing officer
John Miller appeared to signal NBC’s willingness to talk
about such overlays more extensively at a Promax event
in June. Miller, whose words at Promax set the industry
buzzing, called marketer overlays for clients—like the
Target shopping cart—very rare; as yet, they are not
being sold. “We have discussed it internally but so far
we have resisted,” he said. Discussions continue,
however. “There’s a dancing act going on internally with
advertising trying to figure out an appropriate way not
to hurt the viewing experience.
“The shopping cart had the logo, but it didn’t say
‘Target,’ or ‘shop tomorrow,’” Miller added. “They
wanted it to be subtle, and that’s why we went with it,
because it didn’t seem to distract.” Miller was careful
to emphasize that the network remains mindful of not
upsetting either the creative community or viewers.
Mike Benson, executive vice president of marketing
for ABC Entertainment, is against any such lower-third
strip mall of ads. “We don’t do them,” he said. “We are
trying to remove clutter to make sure viewers have the
best possible experience. If we start placing ads, we
will lose the value of promotions as a navigation tool.”
Still, advertisers may well have the opportunity to
play pop-up a la Bill Engvall at Turner. When asked if
we might see advertisers stopping the action during
program time, Turner Entertainment executive VP of ad
sales Linda Yaccarino responded, “When we hit on the
right program and marry it with the right ad, it could
happen, but it’s not on the docket right now.”
Producers and writers probably won’t be in favor of
such deals. The Writers Guild of America already
expressed its negative opinion of brand integration to
officials in Washington, D.C.
How viewers react will be key to the development of
in-program ad bugs. And that has led to some stealth
experimentation. At sites such as Hulu, some ad
messaging is incorporated on the bottom of the screen
during TV episodes. Bank of America signage, for
instance, appears while a Family Guy episode is playing
Miller’s own research suggested that 20% of viewers
see promos for network programming as a service, while
the majority of those polled said they had no opinion
one way or another. Those figures might change if
viewers were asked about advertisers.
Gary Carr, senior VP and director of broadcast
services at New York boutique media agency TargetCast
tcm, admitted that he has mixed feelings about ad bugs.
“I understand the networks are trying to monetize
content and advertisers want their message to be seen,
but no one ever seems to think about the viewer.” Carr
believes that while it’s always in advertisers’
collective interest to avoid getting zapped during
breaks, viewers are already fatigued by incessant
Carr was not alone in his skepticism. Herbert Jack
Rotfeld, professor of marketing at Auburn University and
editor of the Journal of Consumer Affairs, said networks
are all but encouraging viewers to leave the screen
because of endless ad breaks, repetitive spots and
program promos and graphics. “It detracts from the
program; they’re covering part of the screen,” he added.
“I think even if people are watching a national weather
warning, they don’t like losing part of their screen to
things that have nothing to do with the show.”
Rotfeld, who’s also author of Adventures in Misplaced
Marketing, added, “Creating more clutter is not more
Lower-third graphics really took off in the early
1980s at Viacom. Lee Hunt, a veteran promotions
executive, claimed that VH1 was among the first to place
a permanent on-screen identifier in 1987. The channel’s
logo was tabbed because VH1 feared it might be losing
viewers who were filling in Nielsen Media Research
diaries and presuming that they were watching MTV.
Now, 20 years hence, on-screen logos are ubiquitous.
And in the post-Sept. 11 world, news crawls became a
permanent fixture of main cable news outlets.
The space above the crawl has also been appropriated.
CNN carries stock quotes, time and boxes reading both
“live” and “just-in,” together with a separate box
summarizing the anchor’s current story. And CNN’s own
logo is outlined by a beaming silver flash.
Such clutter led to a July 2005 Kansas State
University study titled, “How Attention Partitions
Itself During Simultaneous Message Presentations.” The
paper’s authors—Lori Bergen, Tom Grimes and Deborah
Potter—conducted tests to see how much information
viewers could take in at once.
The short answer was: not as much as networks
probably hoped. “It appears that on average, 10% of
information delivered in the visually complex condition
did not get through to long-term memory due to visual
complexity,” the paper said. Research indicated that
this was less of a burden during entertainment
The authors argued against too many graphics: “There
is no explanation ... that justifies using a
presentational format for news that makes it more
difficult for viewers than it already is. The data ...
strongly suggest that the format harms story fact
comprehension. Thus, this cacophonous format appears to
be one that can—and should—be better managed by
television news producers.”
Looking for the Boundary Line
Hunt said there has been some pushback against ad bugs
within the industry. He cited one egregious example of a
promotion for a pizza brand suggesting weekend picnic
ideas that popped up during the denouement of a repeat
episode of Law & Order on cable.
“Cognitive theory shows that people can’t take in two
messages; they go back and forth,” said Hunt, who
advises clients on the best place to put promos and
explained that viewers need a few seconds when they come
out of a break to get back into the action. Promotions
placed soon after the break work best. “You are not
taking away from the emotional engagement. Some networks
put them in the middle of the action, some at the end of
the segment. The problem is, we don’t know how to
measure pushback. Is it when ratings go down? We don’t
know where the boundary is until we cross it.”
Similarly, advertisers are having difficulty figuring
out what the presence of a logo or character might be
worth. Donna Wolfe, chief negotiation officer at
Universal McCann, has negotiated lower-third ads for
clients she declines to name. Wolfe explained, “You have
to factor in duration; is it an icon, is it a link to
information, how impactful is it, how prominent? What
show is it on? The disadvantage is that you are in
competition with the content of the program.”
But the faster the value is weighed by new
measurement tools, the faster the take-up will be.
Severson thinks there will be a price tag put on ad bugs
within the next two years. “I’d be astonished if every
network isn’t looking at it,” he added. “The economics