In Depth

Latest Tactic to Take Over TV: the 'Bug' -- As Networks Offer Smallest Corner of Screen for Ads, Some Fear Overuse Could Start to, er, Bug Viewers

By Brian Steinberg
Advertising Age

Once content simply to run 30- and 60-second commercials alongside your favorite TV programs, marketers have long since realized they need to develop a few new weapons for their arsenal. Product placement, which has become the tactic of choice in recent years, is fast becoming passe. The fear is that the placements show up for just seconds during a program and can easily be washed away by a glut of other action, including regular commercials, or even just dialogue and plot.

One solution? Playing with bugs.

Yes, "bugs," those TV-network logos that rest quietly in one of the bottom corners of the boob tube, are becoming ripe for promoting more than just the CW logo or the CBS "eye."

This season, both the CW and Fox have allowed sponsors to post messages around and even in their logos. On Fox, DirecTV has informed viewers during the first few seconds of dinosaur-drama "Terra Nova" through a display in the bottom right corner of the screen that the company helps to bring the program to viewers in "Fox High Def" (no telling whether a current squabble between News Corp. and DirecTV has affected the strategy). The CW, meanwhile, allowed Microsoft to physically take over its logo, letting the company tell CW viewers that CW TV shows were something to "Bing About," a play on CW's usual "TV To Talk About" and "TV To Text About" sloganeering.

Time Warner's Turner cable unit has put some of this kind of stuff in place at its entertainment networks, and CBS, according to a person familiar with the situation, has been approached by advertisers in the past but has as of yet not allowed such marketing on the network.

Rising interest in the smallest corners of TV-screen real estate suggests advertisers believe viewers are growing even more resistant to their normal commercials. "There are advertisers who are concerned about losing ratings to growing DVR playback and who want the networks to provide reach that cannot by skipped ," said Christopher Vollmer, partner and leader-global media and entertainment at Booz & Co. "There is no doubt advertisers and their agencies are pushing for more innovation -- and as there is a continued shift of budgets from print and other media to TV and digital, the TV networks do want to take as much share of spending as they can."

Broadcast networks would likely never have embraced such stuff a decade or more ago, but their stance on keeping the TV screen relatively uncluttered during program segments appears to be crumbling. Tech-savvy viewers are more accustomed to seeing multiple on-screen elements on digital tablets, smartphones and computer screens, and may be more tolerant of such intrusions on TV. And the networks may have to be more flexible as their ratings power is siphoned away by the availability of their most popular programs on other devices.

"Not all the networks are willing to do it," said Brent Poer, exec VP-managing director at Publicis Groupe' MediaVest, which helped orchestrate the Bing-CW pairing. Even so, he thinks more will embrace the ideas over time. "A lot of this speaks to audience fragmentation and ratings declines. When you don't have the [ratings] inventory typically available for some of these partnerships, what you've got to do is say, "What do we have?'" The answer may come in the form of allowing ad messages in different parts of the network's broadcast.

At the CW, executives have begun to sense a desire from marketers to do more than simple product integrations. "There is a lot of momentum in developing opportunities that run outside of the show," said Alison Tarrant, exec VP-integrated sales and marketing at the CW, in a September interview. Rather than "just run one time in the body of the show," knitting an ad into the very fabric of a particular network can have a longer shelf life than a sneaker or phone that shows up in a character's hands for a few seconds. For one thing, the TV "bugs" stay on screen the entire time a piece of content is on air.

Indeed, executives at Bing were keen to avoid relying on a method that may be in danger of overuse. "Integrations today have basically started to become like commercials were five or 10 years ago," said Sean Carver, a director of marketing at Bing, in a September interview. "It is more difficult to catch people's attention" using them.

TV networks aren't likely to make their bugs available without a substantial ad buy already in place. Bing had signed up for an extensive package that included the CW producing individual videos featuring actors and behind-the-scenes talent from its prime-time lineup to air during commercial breaks.

DirecTV's placement in Fox's "Terra Nova" comes as a result of a broader arrangement between the two companies, according to a person familiar with the situation, and DirecTV has enjoyed similar placements in prime time and sports programming for some time. DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said via email that the company's shout-out in the lower right-hand corner during the opening moments of "Terra Nova" came about as "one of the benefits due to our good relationship with Fox." Fox could not make executives available for comment.