Axe Sponsors, Co-Stars in Web TV Series

NEW YORK A new branded series involving a secret agent and a talking car that together fend off the bad guys debuted this month on the Web. Sound familiar? Maybe.

Midnight Rida is a spoof of the 1980s kitschy television classic Knight Rider, which NBC is resurrecting in prime time this year. Created by maniaTV, an Internet video network, Unilever’s Axe brand is the title sponsor of the series, often appearing at the center of the story line. The series demonstrates a growing trend of having the advertiser in place from inception, rather than creating the show and then searching for appropriate ad placements, said Devin Boddie, series co-creator.

Midnight Rida is billed as an urban-action comedy. Twenty-three five- to 10-minute episodes will run into the fall. Set in Southern California, the story focuses on Mitch McKnight, an intern working for a secret underground intelligence bureau who’s anxious to prove he’s special agent material. He is assisted by GARI, an Oldsmobile-turned-crime-fighting-car with a mind and voice of its own. Though the two don’t necessarily get along — or understand each other between McKnight’s Texas drawl and GARI’s urban slang — they inadvertently end up solving crimes.

Carlton Jackson, director of client services at maniaTV, said Axe wanted to promote a new product, the Axe Detailer Shower Tool. WPP Group’s Mindshare Interaction, Axe’s media planning and buying agency, recommended maniaTV to its client on the basis of the agency’s request for proposals seeking multiple channels to promote the new product. Subsequently winning the business, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Axe’s creative agency, gave maniaTV insight into the larger campaign surrounding the new product.

The Axe Detailer was positioned as “get your man parts clean. So, there was a good carryover into guys and autos. … It was a very natural fit for us in terms of Midnight Rida because of course it’s a spoof with a talking car,” Jackson said. He noted that throughout the process, while maniaTV handled most of the script, there was constant dialogue with the agencies and the brand.

Examples of the product integrations include GARI, having human attributes, being washed with Axe Detailer. The Axe shower tool will also impersonate various spy gear.

Banner ads will appear on the show page to reinforce the Axe campaign. Widgets allow consumers to take content and place it on their MySpace pages or forward it to friends.

There are plans to include other advertisers, said Jackson, though he declined to discuss details.

Peter Clemente, maniaTV’s chief marketing officer, pointed to the show’s budget as an area of strength: the overall cost, he said, was less than an average 30-second spot for an entire season. He underscored the value of sitting down with the agency and brand executives to focus on the most effective and innovative ways to integrate the brand. “We have to find people who understand the medium … and embrace the concept of inviting brands into the process,” he said.

For John Zamoiski, co-CEO of Norm Marshall Associates and professor of sports and entertainment marketing at New York University, the use of parody in branded entertainment is atypical. But “if it makes sense in its [branded] associations, then it’s going to be embraced by the audience as being reflective of how they would expect to see that brand,” he said.

Axe could not be reached for comment.