Campaign of Distinction: ‘The Unit’

Jun 19, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

With the war in Iraq dragging on and the public weary of the bleak war news coverage, CBS faced a unique challenge in launching “The Unit”: Would anyone want to watch a TV drama about a special forces military unit and its dangerous missions?

Marketing professionals Ron Scalera, CBS Marketing Group executive VP and creative director, and Lori Shefa, director, on-air promotion, determined that the promotion had to emphasize the humanity of the show as much as the action. “This show shouldn’t be labeled as a military show because it’s really not. It’s a lot more than that.

“They have the mission of the week, but they also have the ongoing story lines of the wives that humanize it quite a bit. We really made an effort to balance the drama with the action in the marketing aspects,” Ms. Shefa said. “We were very careful not to try to capitalize on the war in Iraq, not to pander.”

“Defending freedom is an honorable notion, and in ‘The Unit,’ the stakes are raised because of the types of missions they have to accomplish,” Mr. Scalera said. “It’s not really a political issue when you keep your focus on the people.”

To convey that in the marketing, Mr. Scalera and Ms. Shefa drafted Dennis Haysbert, who stars in ‘The Unit,’ to voice the launch promos.

According to Ms. Shefa, “My motto for on-air promotions for ‘The Unit’ is this: When you think you’ve got enough Dennis Haysbert, add just a little bit more. I say that because you can never underestimate the power of Mr. Haysbert’s popularity. He has that really commanding voice and the highest ratings for any actor when it comes to being trustworthy. It was great to have him read our spots.”

Another way to accomplish the marketing of “The Unit” was to inform military groups and the families of veterans about the show. Promotion began even before there was an airdate for the premiere. “There’s a vast number of military organizations that we thought would be drawn to the show, the real struggles that military families go through. We reached them both online and through the press,” Mr. Scalera said.

They also took advantage of the network’s sports programming. “We blanketed the airwaves during the Army-Navy football game on CBS,” Ms. Shefa explained. “We took every spot in the game.”

It wasn’t only promo spots, though. CBS marketing took to the air, too. “Flying banners have been done before, but in this case we had two planes with helicopter escort, which gave it a military feel,” said Mr. Scalera. “We considered all kinds of off-the-wall things. But we didn’t want to scare people into thinking there was an invasion going on. This was just a way to draw some attention to ‘The Unit’ in an unusual way.”

In both the usual and unusual ways, CBS succeeded in launching “The Unit” in a positive, productive and ultimately profitable way. The show was a strong competitor to ABC’s top drama, “Lost,” and emerged as this past season’s No. 1 new drama both in total viewers and in the adults 18 to 49 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Ron Scalera

Title: Executive VP, CBS Marketing Group

How long in position: Nine years

Year of birth: 1961

Place of birth: Passaic, N.J.

Who knew? Mr. Scalera is a former professional musician.

Lori Shefa

Title: Creative director, on-air promotions, CBS Marketing Group

How long in position: Nine years

Year of birth: “You never ask a lady that question!”

Place of birth: Cincinnati

Who knew? Her nickname is “Killer,” but meant in a warm, fuzzy way.