By Brian Steinberg
A Ford Fiesta won’t crop up in CW’s "Vampire Diaries" until early October, a veritable eternity in terms of TV-show viewing, but the automaker is trying to get people to talk about it now, even though the fan-favorite show won’t hit the screen until Sept. 9.
The effort aims not only to boost Ford’s presence in the minds of younger consumers who might be ready to make a first-car purchase, but also to get people talking about "Vampire Diaries" well before its second season starts. A new contest that started this week solicits essays via Facebook, Twitter and email, all the while suggesting to friends who read those web bursts that they ought to watch the program. The winner — who will be announced during the season premiere — gets one of the cars.
The practice of weaving name-brand products into TV shows has risen over the last several years, as more advertisers struggle to get their wares in front of TV viewers more prone than ever to fast-forward past or otherwise skip expensive commercials. Yet to most couch potatoes, the result is the same: Someone jammed a car, soda can or hand-held gadget into a favorite program. By alerting fans to the placement weeks ahead of time and even rewarding them for showing interest in it, TV networks and marketers hope to avoid some of the distraction that often goes hand-in-hand with such promotions.
In other words, the story is not so much told in the show but in the social media, where the placement doesn’t risk causing the rolling of eyes.
"We don’t just want it to be seen," said Jeff Eggen, Ford’s car experiential marketing manager, speaking about the Fiesta’s appearance in "Diaries." The idea is to "have a second element or a third element" rather than just a placement on a TV program, "where we can engage with the fans outside of the show with additional content," said Mr. Eggen, who oversees the automakers’s product-placement projects.
Ford’s sponsorship of the program continues after the contest submission deadline. Following the premiere, fans get a chance to ask questions about the show, then have those queries answered via an online video series sponsored by Ford Fiesta. Questions will be collected between the Sept. 9 second-season debut and the Sept. 30 episode. After that date, viewers can check in online to watch "behind the scenes" videos that offer answers to their queries.
The promotional effort shows CW reaching beyond its own air to please advertisers. "We recognize the audience is important and want to give them more of what they care about," said Alison Tarrant, senior VP-integrated sales and marketing at the CW network.
The Detroit car maker has made extensive use of social media and experiential events to generate buzz and awareness for the Ford Fiesta, which rolled into showrooms in June. But Ford also is driving behind a trend that has gained traction over the last two years. TV networks have started to recognize that the fan base for each of its programs responds to different triggers. Simply running promos on air won’t necessarily bring viewers in droves any longer. So more TV outlets are trying to use social media in an effort to catch the interest of hardcore fans of a specific piece of content in the hopes those die-hards will bring others in their sphere of influence to the screen.
In late 2009, for example, fans of the syndicated "Ellen DeGeneres Show" were able to follow the program’s Twitter feed for a chance to win a gas-card giveaway from General Motors — and at the same time follow an "Ellen" intern as she drove a GMC 2010 Terrain that was featured on the program. Some ad wags have dubbed this joint use of TV and social-networking tools "social TV."