By Brian Steinberg
Blink while watching suburban-themed sitcom "Suburgatory" on ABC Wednesday night and you might just miss it: Kooky character Sheila Shay will burst out from the show’s confines and jump right into a commercial for Lowe’s.
It’s the latest example of a burgeoning practice on U.S. TV: To get viewers to stick around when their favorite programs move into commercial breaks, TV networks are allowing characters from the shows to stick around for a while and hawk product. On Wednesday, Sheila Shay, a butt-insky neighbor known for the attention she dollops on her garden, home and the lives of those living around her in the sitcom’s fictional suburb of Chatswin, will hold forth on the advantages of buying goods at Lowe’s and using the home-improvement retail chain’s MyLowe’s tool to track purchases and organize their homes.
"This is what all of our clients are asking for, and it’s only going to increase," said Claudia Cahill, chief content officer at Omnicom Group’s OMD, which helped put the deal together on Lowe’s behalf. "It’s just the future of the business."
The simple truth is that TV fans don’t tune in to see the ads; they switch the set on (or seek out programming on digital devices) to see the shows themselves. By taking specific characters from favorite programs and letting them loose as pitchmen in the commercial breaks, advertisers and TV networks hope to keep couch potatoes’ gaze upon the screen and their hands off the remote or mouse or iPhone home button. With ads creeping from TV screens to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, familiar program characters also serve as a magnet of sorts, pulling whatever consumers are interested along for the promotional ride.
Viewers will be told they are watching a commercial, and they will see the show stop and give way to an ad break, said Jenny Belcher, executive director-integrated marketing for ABC. The Sheila Shay ad "will air within the [commercial pod]. There definitely will be a break," she said. " Once you see it, you’ll be able to tell. There is an intro to it. Branding opens and closes the segments."
What they’ll see is Sheila Shay, played by former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Ana Gasteyer, talking about how she uses MyLowes to improve her garden — particularly because a neighbor has been trying to turn her own yard into a showcase. By using MyLowes to track past purchases, she says in the spot, she can improve her results. The segment is called "mySocialNetwork with Sheila Shay" and is "presented by MyLowes." A reminder for viewers to tune in to "Suburgatory" will close the segment.
The spot will push viewers to seek additional Shay content online. Webisodes featuring the character will be housed on a SheilaShay.com site built into ABC’s web site for "Suburgatory," said Ms. Belcher. The content can also be found on ABC’s mobile app, the show’s Facebook page and its YouTube channel. What is more, those truly intriguted by Ms. Gasteyer’s portrayal of the character can seek out the Twitter feed @SheilaShay, where the character will hold forth and push followers to sample future videos.
Lowe’s has good reason to explore a partnership with "Suburgatory." Last season, Target, Sears and Macy’s were the major retailers backing the suburban-satire sitcom, according to data from Kantar Media. A home-improvement retailer could see its message stand apart from the rest. Top "Suburgatory" sponsors last season were Verizon Communications, Procter & Gamble, Apple, Ford Motor and Volkwagen, according to Kantar. "Suburgatory" took in about $54.2 million in advertising dollars between September of 2011 and the end of May of this year, Kantar said.
Even so, a "Suburgatory" deal is bound to have some wrinkles. While ABC sells the advertising surrounding the program, the show is not produced by the network or any sister Disney subsidiary. Instead, it comes from Time Warner’s Warner Brothers studio. OMD’s Ms. Cahill said Lowe’s worked not only with ABC but with the show’s producers to knit this deal together.
Characters from favorite programs have long cropped up in the ad breaks in Japan, but the idea was, until only recently, largely viewed as taboo in the U.S. Indeed, for many years, TV networks would pull ads off their air if they featured characters from rival TV shows, or even actors playing roles that reminded viewers overmuch of the characters they played elsewhere. In 1997, Genral Motors’ Cadillac ran an ad featuring actor Dennis Franz as a cop handing out a ticket. Mr. Franz was on ABC’s "NYPD Blue" at the time. CBS and NBC vetoed the spot.
These days, characters are likely to appear in custom-made spots aimed to run on just the network featuring the show from which they originate. The ads featuring Sheila Shay are meant to run during "Suburgatory" and on ABC’s air. More of them will be in demand, suggested OMD’s Ms. Cahill. Having characters from a show in the ad breaks that support it have an "exponential effect on recall and brand perception and purchase intent," she said.
ABC isn’t the first to try out the idea. NBC’s "30 Rock" in 2010 ran a spot for Dr Pepper that looked as if it were simply part of the show. The ad ran just after the end of the episode — in the few moments typically reserved on sitcoms for an extra scene that plays as credits for the show roll. In the Dr Pepper spot, recurring "30 Rock" character Dr. Spaceman decried boredom and told viewers how drinking Dr Pepper could banish it.
Intriguingly, Dr. Spaceman is played by actor Chris Parnell, another "Saturday Night Live" alum who just so happens to play Fred Shay, husband of Sheila Shay on "Suburgatory." Could Mr. Parnell show up in future ads for Lowe’s? And if so, will anyone recognize him as the actor most experienced in taking sitcom characters into ad breaks and beyond?