The day when commercials are indistinguishable from the programs they support finally arrived — just before 10 p.m. Eastern last Thursday night [March 11].
That’s when an ad for Dr Pepper ran after NBC’s insider-y sitcom "30 Rock," making use of recurring character Dr. Spaceman, played by comic Chris Parnell. In the spot, which was paired with a more-traditional TV commercial for the soda, Mr. Parnell’s fictional medical practitioner decried boredom and told viewers how drinking Dr Pepper could banish it. A few moments later, viewers saw the credits roll for "30 Rock." Staffers from "30 Rock" were not involved in the creation of the commercial, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Ho-hum, you might say. And sure, we’ve seen this kind of stuff before. Yes, we’re aware that NBC has run ads from American Express during "Heroes" that showed Beyoncé in cartoon format, and then told viewers to stick around for more of the program. Or ads from Honda during "Chuck" that used that show’s characters to talk up the then-coming Winter Olympics.
But these types of ads, typically at least, also promote the program from which the characters are borrowed.
Astute viewers may also have noticed recent ads on ABC from Nestle’s Stouffers in which the casts of "Ugly Betty" and "The Middle" were depicted eating the marketer’s meals. But those were basically commercials that featured characters from ABC shows. Now we’re seeing stuff like this Dr Pepper spot, which looks like it’s part of "30 Rock," as if it’s a skit featuring the Dr. Parnell character. It appropriated the show at hand much more directly than the Stouffers spots did but does not return the favor with any overt promotion of the program or NBC.
To be sure, fans of Dr Pepper were tickled by its "30 Rock" commercial. "Just saw an awesome @drpepper commercial with the doctor from 30 rock. Well done.- Thanks!!" wrote Twitterer @ericmayville on the popular social-networking outlet. But the spot hit our radar screen for several other reasons, many of them having to do with what its creation says about where TV advertising is going:
Yes, it’s true, in the early days of TV, networks were happy to mix commerce and content, with talk-show hosts also serving as pitchmen. Many of them do that now. But in recent months, the unofficial rule that seemed to emerge let advertisers make use of program elements — and get top positions in commercial breaks — in exchange for including some promotion for the network or its programming in the ad. In the industry, these types of commercials have become known as "hybrids."
But Dr Pepper’s spot offered a slight twist on the format by saying nothing explicit about "30 Rock" or about NBC. It just used a character from NBC’s "30 Rock" for Dr Pepper’s gain.
With digital video recorders greasing the way towards substantial commercial-avoidance, marketers want to do things that either can’t be skipped or that lull the viewer into thinking they might miss something special if they keep a finger on the fast-forward button.
The solution is to shove more commercial messages into the program — and make those outside the show look as if the show is still continuing. One idea recently floated to a network involved a "split screen" format that would allow viewers to see a commercial as well as the show it interrupted, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The idea never came to fruition, but the fact that it was discussed shows the pressure marketers are under to get their ads seen and the pressure TV networks are under to facilitate that process.
A program is a bargaining chip. Advertisers want to be associated with it. But the more TV networks farm out producers, writers and actors to serve their ad clients, the less "special" or "singular" the act becomes. How much of a premium can a network command for such stuff the more common it becomes?
Worth noting: The networks most interested in these techniques, according to media buyers and a random survey of TV-watching, appear to be NBC, CW and, to a lesser extent, ABC. According to Kantar Media, CW saw ad revenue decline 25.2% in 2009, while NBC’s ad intake fell 17.7%. ABC’s ad revenue fell 2.1% in 2009, while Fox’s fell 3% and CBS’s 5.1%.
When you consider not just DVR penetration and the shaky revenue streams but a viewer diaspora spreading out to watch video in any number of formats, you wonder how much longer TV networks will be able to resist the old line of thinking that programs and promotions are supposed to be distinct and separate.#