Technology, cable lead TV ad opportunities

As advertisers become more sophisticated, marketers at TV networks are finding new, distinctive ways to increase the on-air visibility of products and searching for ever more creative ways to make sure brands stand out above the fray....

As advertisers become more sophisticated, marketers at TV networks are finding new, distinctive ways to increase the on-air visibility of products and searching for ever more creative ways to make sure brands stand out above the fray.

With the prospect of new technology allowing viewers to zap past commercial spots, the stakes are high as networks grapple with digital overlay possibilities and more product placement.

Who is at the head of the class?

M2 Universal president Hugh Dow says, ‘Certainly CHUM, Alliance/Atlantis, and CTV tend to be lead players mainly because of the number of stations that they have. But I wouldn’t say that there is anything that distinguishes them greatly. They are all open to new ideas.

‘Still, the most contemporary marketers tend to be the specialty stations who are generally very receptive to doing anything innovative in terms of sponsorship, product placement, even content itself,’ notes Dow.

For CHUM specialty stations, namely Much Music, thinking up unique alternatives to traditional ad sales is nothing new. They have been executing integrated product placement for years now, thanks in part to Moses Znaimer’s zest for open, freewheeling TV.

In that quest for fresh ideas, CHUM is not alone. Across the country, programmers are madly trying to find the right balance in what are, according to Dow, ‘still very early days. No one has the magic formula, nobody has the template. Everyone is certainly investigating how they can work most effectively.’

However, there exists across the board a, ‘greater demand from advertisers to step higher, to elevate a traditional media buy into something a bit more original,’ says Susan Arthur director of marketing for CHUM Specialty TV.

For years now, says Arthur, CHUM has been doing, ‘needs analysis with our clients and finding out the kind of things they were looking for over and above traditional ad sales, and working with programming to develop ideas to get their objectives met without being too overtly commercial.’

To be sure, things like product placement are old hat at Much Music and Citytv, where company cars have long been littered with corporate logos and programming is rife with commercial sponsorship.

Take Tim Hortons on Citytv’s Breakfast Television Diner each morning. Hortons’ product is in plain view to the audience as is the logo integrated right into the set. The on-air talent has been walking around with Tim Hortons cups of coffee for what seems like ages now.

But where is it all going?

Apparently to the Australian Outback, where Survivor contestants opened bags of Doritos and slept in a Pontiac Aztec – or to Times Square in New York where NBC has been hiring people to stand behind the Today Show window with signs saying, ‘Goodbye, you are the weakest link,’ in an effort to market its newest game show, The Weakest Link. Most significantly it leads to being able to buy product being worn or consumed by your favorite TV personality a la Grace’s T-shirt on an episode of last month’s Will and Grace, which directed viewers to the Polo brand Web site, where they could purchase the shirt with the proceeds going directly to breast cancer research.

‘I don’t think we’re going to see an avalanche, but certainly as advertisers become more concerned about conventional commercial avoidance by viewers, I think areas where a commercial presence can be integrated into the content of the program itself will become of more interest,’ says Dow who also points out that, ‘We saw some very powerful examples of this in Survivor, for example, where there was to my mind extremely effective and extremely relevant product placement.’

But Arthur feels there are certain parameters that need to be maintained. ‘Broadcasters and advertisers need to be very careful not to shoehorn a fit. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to open a box [of Doritos] on a desert island – it’s not a natural environment. For Tim Hortons to be a part of the BT Diner is perfectly natural – it doesn’t feel awkward, it doesn’t feel forced.’

For U8TV, producers of Lofters, which is 51% controlled by Alliance/Atlantis, new product placement and unique sponsorship is a significant revenue source for the enterprise.

The show plays continuously on the Web and each week on the Life Network. It serves as a good example of just how many advertising alternatives exist in the new TV environment. Program sponsorship, content sponsorship, netmercials, product placement, e-mail marketing customized contests, interactive polls and chat, banners and buttons and TV commercials are all integrated into the programming.

‘Because the Lofters interact with brands and products naturally every day, everything becomes a branding opportunity. The clothes, their food, their toothpaste all become marketing opportunities,’ remarks Lily Shalev, co-founder and president of U8TV.

‘To me, this is the beginning of what the future is going to look like. There are so many ways that the consumer’s attention is being diluted right now, so many media messages hitting them. For a brand to really be able to connect with that consumer, you need to try and be in all those different mediums so that you get them in all the different models,’ says Shalev.

‘That’s the next part we’re working on is that we take the advertising message to the next level where it actually ends in some sort of a transaction. So we’re busy setting up our e-commerce page right now. It should be ready to go in July where our advertisers and sponsors not only do the advertising, but if you like the T-shirt that Jennifer [the Lofter] is wearing, you can actually go to that part of our Web site – click on the link and buy that T-shirt. That, to me, is the next evolution of the whole thing.’

How far will it all go?

That remains the million-dollar question.

Dow notes that, ‘The limitation in Canada is production. To provide the most effective product placement and integration, it has to be a home-developed property. Certainly those specialty cable companies and conventional broadcasters where shows are actually created in Canada does allow an advertiser involvement from the ground floor up as opposed to when it’s a U.S. program.’

Rosanne Caron, CanWest media sales VP of integrated business services, declined to go into detail about CanWest’s future plans, but did say, ‘We’re working on a number of different proposals right now where we’re looking at developing new approaches for clients, and new content opportunities.’

Ken Johnson, VP sales at CanWest Global points to new technology that allows for digital overlays, such as corporate logos on screen savers, like the ones seen on Traders, Blue Murder and Popstars, as being all the rage. Though the technology is new and CanWest can only apply it to Canadian productions (as rights to do so on American programming are proving to be elusive for the moment), there is little doubt that this type of promotion is the wave of the near future.

Certainly the technology can be adapted to sitcoms emerging from the U.S. But whether that will happen largely depends on the regulatory powers that be. CRTC regulation and exclusivity clauses in the U.S. advertising markets mean that the area remains an open question.

But things have definitely become more sophisticated, at least according to Arthur. On Much Music, she says, for example, ‘The kinds of things that we’ve been doing are 10-fold in terms of integration and thinking up new possibilities for clients [compared to] 10 years ago, [when] we just started doing contests and integrating our clients in our contests and charging revenue for that.’

While that business continues to grow, Arthur notes that now Chum is finding a lot of buyers looking for more than just a traditional contesting. ‘A lot of the big conventional networks are just getting into contesting, that’s their added-value now, but we’re beyond that,’ says Arthur. Being ‘beyond that’ includes dreaming up projects like ‘Gonna meet a rock star’ co-sponsored with Labatt, where Much Music and the brewery actually produce a show together and the beer makers are involved in every aspect of the endeavor from pre-production to marketing.

Arthur says, ‘What we can offer advertisers in terms of the menu of opportunities both promotionally and from an advertising standpoint is [limitless]. We’ll just keep thinking up new things and new ways.’