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Latest Rage At The Upfronts: Ads That Don't Look Like Ads


The Biz


May 5, 2008

IT'S GETTING harder to distinguish commercials from content. These days, an ad can be a vignette with a stand-up comic, a puppet-hosted interview or a behind-the-scenes look at an upcoming movie.

On the eve of the upfront market, when TV networks pitch their slates and secure the bulk of their ad dollars for the next season, ad sales executives are going to new lengths to get their share of cash. The current buzz term: custom content. In other words, ads that don't look like ads. The goal is to get consumers to pay attention, not surf or fast-forward during breaks from their shows.

Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting, which has been aggressive in developing ads designed as entertainment, is launching several such initiatives on its remade Tru TV.

"Advertisers want to engage with consumers in some meaningful way," said Tom Winiarski, svp of Turner Entertainment ad sales and marketing. "We're helping them maximize their message in our environment."

The cable network, formerly Court TV, has moved away from its all-courtroom-all-the-time coverage to a broader "It's not reality, it's actuality" theme, with 350 hours of original programming in the upcoming season. It's less crime and punishment, which got the cold shoulder from some advertisers, Winiarski said.

"Not a lot of people want to be the title sponsor for the Phil Spector murder trial," he said.

Since its January relaunch, Tru TV has seen a bump in ratings, earning its biggest-ever prime time audiences in the key 18-49-year-old demographic and total viewers. First quarter saw a 7% increase in viewers, and an average uptick of 82,000 25-54-year-old viewers.

The restyled channel focuses on personal storytelling and real-life experiences in its unscripted shows, a la the fall-launching Black Gold, from the Ice Road Truckers production team, that features oil wildcatters in Texas.

Three new branded entertainment formats—Reel Movie, Actual Ads and Real Life Stories—will link the channel's programming theme with advertiser messages. Reel Movie, with 20th Century Fox as its first advertiser, goes behind the scenes of the studio's comedy What Happens in Vegas with personal accounts from stars Ashton Kutcher and Rob Corddry about a pivotal scene. Commentary comes from co-star Cameron Diaz for the vignettes, which start this week for the May 9-opening movie.

Actual Ads have a cinema verité twist, featuring consumers waxing about brands via self-shot Webcam footage. Finally, Reel Life Stories will mix shows like the upcoming Ski Patrol with sponsor messages in short entertainment bits. Talks are ongoing with interested marketers.

In the same spirit, sibling channel Cartoon Network just announced interstitials hosted by puppets named Jib and Crash who will do interviews with movie stars. Warner Bros. is the first client, with a 90-second exclusive peek at Speed Racer this week followed by 45-second puppet-hosted vignettes. DreamWorks Animation will be next up to promote its animated family flick Kung Fu Panda.

Turner execs also have made advertisers part of 30-second spots called bitcoms where stand-up comics tell jokes about the brands on the comedy-centric TBS. Unilever and other major marketers have participated.

Other entertainment companies like Viacom are pushing further into the pod-busting space via programs like True Dads, ad-integrated spots on Spike TV that show dads spending time with their kids. Red Lobster, Jeep, T-Mobile and Pizza Hut have been woven into the pieces. The CSI Guys put Dunkin' Donuts, T-Mobile and Dominos into shorts that parody the popular drama.


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