In Depth

NBC's 'Southland' Pushes Ad Limits in L.A. Times

NBC is promoting tonight's premiere of "Southland" with a front-page ad in today's Los Angeles Times that appears to be unlike any other front page ad the paper has run previously.

Los Angeles Times Cover - April 9, 2009

That's because the ad is designed to resemble a news story.

As part of the next phase in its extensive marketing campaign for the John Wells-produced drama, NBC has bought a traditional strip advertisement that will run across the bottom of the Times' page one and will feature key art from the show. It will be adjacent to another paid ad unit: an advertorial-type feature story documenting the first day on the job of a fictional Los Angeles Police Department rookie cop.

The faux story, headline "Southland's Rookie Hero," will promise readers a ride-along with new LAPD officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) during his first day on duty. To avoid reader confusion, the story will be printed in a different typeface than normal Times stories, and will also feature a prominent disclaimer: The NBC peacock logo and the word "advertisement" will appear just above the ad's headline.

The story will run just below the page one fold, and will extend to the bottom part of the page where the more traditional "Southland" ad is set to run. The adjacency, as well as the fact that the story carries no byline and doesn't jump inside to another page. are also designed to make sure readers know they're looking at paid content.

"Today's consumer is sophisticated enough to pick up on these things," said Adam Stotsky, president of marketing for NBC Entertainment.

At the bottom of the story is a message, in italics, noting that the above was "just one of the many incredible stories" from the new NBC series "Southland" and that viewers should tune in tonight.

NBC is no stranger to product integration, regularly looking for ways to show off an advertiser such as Applebee's in a show such as "Friday Night Lights." Now, however, it's NBC that's looking to work its product into someone else's editorial content.

"This is a great way to integrate our messaging into their editorial content," Mr. Stotsky said.

NBC didn't have to work hard to convince the Times to try the possibly groundbreaking messaging.

"They developed the idea and came to us with it," Mr. Stotsky said, crediting L.A, Times Vice President of Entertainment Advertising Lynne Segall for spearheading the promotion.

"It's a reflection of the overall media landscape," Mr. Stotsky said. "We have to innovate or we perish."

He said the Times ad helps "contextualize our message."

"We're telling the stories of police officers and detectives in Los Angeles. What better way to market that than in their hometown paper," Mr. Stotsky explained. "The more contextualized you can make your marketing, the more engaging it becomes."

A statement from the Times indicated the paper was well aware it was entering uncharted territory.

"The delivery of news and information is a rapidly changing business, and the Los Angeles Times is continuously testing innovative approaches," the paper said. "That includes creating unique marketing opportunities for our advertising partners, and today's NBC 'Southland' ad was designed to stretch traditional boundaries."

NBC and Mr. Stosky have done numerous print campaigns with made-up editorial content. To promote February drama "Kings," for example, the network published a special section in Time magazine designed to mimic that week's Man of the Year content.

Mr. Stotsky's staff wrote the "Southland" story in Thursday's Times, with the paper's sales and marketing staff giving input on matter such as font size (but not specific ad copy, according to an LA Times spokesperson).

The executive said NBC and the Times did have some debates over the exact look of the ad. "Figuring out type treatment and branding so that their readers knew this was an ad was a discussion for us," Mr. Stotsky explained. "We landed on a solution that was comfortable for both of us."

Mr. Stotsky declined to say how much NBC paid for the front-page ad package.

"But the L.A. Times recognizes that their most valued real estate is their front-page news section," he said. "It was priced accordingly."

(Editor: Baumann. Updated with details on Times' staff's involvement in writing copy.)