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‘Idol’ Aims to Pump Up the Marketing, Pricing

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When Fox’s hit series “American Idol” returns Jan. 19, all of the major sponsors will be back as well, with plans for even greater local and national marketing efforts and at a significantly higher cost-at least $28 million from each, media agency executives said.
“Everybody has come back with bigger marketing initiatives,” said Roberta Mell, executive VP of marketing for Fox, who wouldn’t disclose financial or marketing details. “We are going to see a lot more retail and in-store marketing from partners. We are going to see more online and consumer marketing, including viewing parties. There’ll also be sweepstakes and print advertising.”
“Idol’s” major marketing partners, AT&T Wireless, Coca-Cola Inc. and Ford Motor Co., will be joined by Subway Restaurants, which has signed on as a limited marketing partner. Fox also said it has another sponsor that it was not prepared to disclose at press time.
A new wrinkle this year is that Fox will invite local DJs from around the country to broadcast live for the finale in May. Additionally, Ms. Mell said Fox is seeking a national sponsor for the radio effort.
Last season’s second edition of “American Idol” performed much stronger than the first “Idol.” It posted a healthy Nielsen Media Research rating of 12.6 with a 19 share. That meant the audience almost doubled from its summer 2002 debut, when ratings averaged 6.3/11. That made “Idol” last season’s fifth highest-rated network prime-time show.
“They have a good track record,” said Bob Riordan, executive VP of national broadcast for MPG USA, a New York media buying company. “The show is priceless-especially those first few shows when they have a lot of knuckleheads [singing] on the air.”
AT&T, Coca-Cola and Ford each will have 55 30-second commercial units during the four-month series, as well as product placement during the show. “Once you offer exclusive deals, you are locking out other competitors,” said one veteran West Coast media agency executives. “It’s a huge investment.”
Other smaller sponsors returning from last season include Old Navy and Procter & Gamble’s Clairol Herbal Essence.
For the edition of “Idol” completed last spring, Fox asked major sponsors to pay some $26 million, according to an Advertising Age story last fall. The network ended up inking deals for somewhat less. Thirty-second commercials last season ranged from $450,000 to more than $500,000.
For its on-air marketing efforts, Fox is offering up a simple theme for “Idol,” said Ms. Mell. “We are reminding the viewer they choose, it’s their choice.”
Fox has produced promo spots that include stars of the past two seasons-Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, and Kelly Clarkson. For Mr. Aiken’s promo, Simon Cowell, the notoriously blunt judge, said on first hearing him sing: “You don’t look like a pop star, but you have a great voice.”
Mr. Cowell, the star judge who originated the role on the U.K. version, “Pop Idol,” is featured in many promotional spots. Singers of lesser talent provide fodder for Mr. Cowell. His cutting remarks on the promos include: “It was like a sound a whale would make,” “That was bloody awful-almost like a language not heard on Earth,” and “You’ve got to stop this silly dream. This is a nightmare.”
“American Idol” was one of last season’s highest-rated shows, along with another Fox reality show, “Joe Millionaire.” But “Joe Millionaire” flopped badly in its second season. Could “Idol” also hit a sour note?
Both the network and advertisers think that is unlikely. “The trick was played out [with `Millionaire’]; there is no trick with `Idol,”’ Ms. Mell said. “`Idol’ is very different. Viewers are voting on the outcome. These are everyday people, and it is very inspirational.”
“They probably guaranteed some high numbers [to advertisers],” said one veteran West Coast media agency executive. “But what if it falls short by 20 percent? Then what? Will they try to expand it to pay advertisers back?”
What Fox will do is use the power of “Idol” to push new mid-season shows. Fox wouldn’t comment, but industry analysts predict the promos will go to two new dramas, “Wonderfalls” and “Still Life,” and/or a new sitcom, “Cracking Up.”
The big coup for “Idol’s” sponsors has been the numerous and noteworthy product placements in every episode.
“Last year Old Navy and Clairol received one in-show segment,” said Michelle Staats, director of national promotions for Fox. Old Navy featured a segment where contestants went shopping in one of its stores. Clairol Herbal Essence showed up in a hair makeover in another segment for contestants. New segments for Old Navy and Clairol will continue this year.
New advertiser Subway will have at least one product placement segment once the finalists are determined-possibly where food is delivered and eaten backstage during a break or at a Subway shop in the area.