I’m Still Big—It’s the Pictures That Got Small

Despite sagging ratings, bad hosts and ambivalence about unheard-of nominees, the Oscars remain golden with advertisers

Quick—who is Jean Dujardin? Bérénice Bejo? How about Bichir? Hazanavicius? Azera?

The first four are nominees for this year’s Oscars, in the prestigious acting and directing categories. And the last? That’s the new luxury sedan from Hyundai, which will be introduced to America much the same way those vying for Hollywood’s most coveted trophy will be, via ABC’s telecast of the 84th Academy Awards on Feb. 26.

Hyundai, the Oscars’ sole auto sponsor, plans to air eight commercials during the event, targeting affluent consumers who may or may not need a primer on the cast of The Artist. At least four new spots, some of them movie-themed, will be used to promote the sleek, $32,000 Azera, which goes on sale within the month.

“The Academy Awards are all about fashion, style and creativity. Thematically and contextually, it’s a nice fit for us, and the timing couldn’t be better,” says Steve Shannon, vp, marketing at Hyundai.

Every year around this time, Oscar holds sway over every Academy voter and movie lover, critic and blogger. It also brings out the tomato chuckers in full force, who have made a sport of slamming the show for being over-hyped, overlong and deadly boring. No one has seen—nor would they care to—most of this year’s nominated films, the haters howl. Emcees of Hollywood’s most famous party—particularly last year’s abysmal, roundly trashed pairing of Anne Hathaway and James Franco—tend to be one big letdown, they gripe. The TV viewing audience—that fabled, and grossly exaggerated, “one billion viewers” worldwide—would appear to agree, as ratings have tanked 15 percent over the last five years.


The Artist, The Descendants, War Horse
 

Still, the Oscars remain a must-buy for many brands, and this year is no exception. ABC sold out its ad time for the telecast earlier than usual, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger said during an earnings call. This year, :30s went for an average $1.7 million, up from $1.5 million last year, per Kantar Media (though other reports put the rate level with last year). The high-water mark remains the prefinancial meltdown year of 2008 when 30-second spots were going for as much as $1.8 million.

“There’s an old expression in boxing about punching above your weight class,” says Hyundai’s Shannon. “That’s our media strategy, and the Oscars give us the chance to be a big voice in a big place.”

Hyundai returns as a pillar sponsor of the show, having swooped in back in 2009 after then-hobbled General Motors pulled out. The automaker joins Coca-Cola and JCPenney as this year’s key advertisers. Each of the three spent north of $10 million in last year’s telecast—more, according to Kantar, than most of the modestly budgeted 2012 Best Picture candidates paid to lure us to the multiplex.

Midnight in Paris, Hugo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
 

In the midst of a major rebranding, JCPenney will use this year’s show to tout its new pricing strategy and spring apparel. This marks Penneys’ 11th consecutive year as exclusive retail sponsor of the Oscars. It “continues to be a key platform for us to reach our customers,” says a spokeswoman.

Look for other major advertisers—among them, American Express, McDonald’s, Samsung and Procter & Gamble—during this Sunday’s extravaganza, all looking to reach an upscale audience that’s 70 percent female. That stat has earned the show the nickname “The Super Bowl for Women,” though the Super Bowl actually attracts more than twice as many women as the Oscars.

Unlike the Super Bowl, people don’t watch the Academy Awards for the ads. Still, they are “high-engagement” programming, as fans watch the show live, throw Oscar parties and tend to stay tuned even during the commercial breaks, notes Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media.

“The Oscars pale in comparison to the Super Bowl for sheer mass and for event status as an advertising showcase, but compared to everything else on TV, it’s huge,” he says. “Outside of NFL football, this is the pinnacle.”

Compared to the Super Bowl, says media analyst Shari Anne Brill, this is “a bargain” for a program far more prestigious than the other awards shows crowding the airwaves. “It’s not the Golden Globes, it’s not the People’s Choice—it’s a completely different animal,” she says. “It’s the crème de la crème, with lots of buzz and social media around it.”

The Academy Awards remain that rare thing on network television: event programming. Thus, they are in a position to command some of the most princely ad rates around. The show is, in fact, the fourth-biggest draw in TV, behind the Super Bowl and the AFC and NFC championship games. “In a fragmented media environment, where advertisers are used to getting viewers a million at a time, here’s an opportunity to grab viewers tens of millions at a time,” says Jon Swallen, svp, research at Kantar Media North America. “It carries a premium for exactly that reason.”

While manufacturers of some consumer goods want to be a part of Hollywood’s big night, the movie studios, ironically, aren’t as likely to be a part of it (even though Paramount and Walt Disney Pictures have bought in this year). That’s because of Academy restrictions on the studios’ marketing. No ads are permitted in support of nominated films, their sequels or their prequels, or any movie that opens before the end of April.

Not that it would matter to the marketers of many motion pictures. “The summer tentpole [movies] with big enough ad budgets to afford it don’t have any incentive to buy time during the Oscars,” says Russell Schwartz, the former marketing chief of New Line Cinema who now runs movie-marketing firm Pandemic. “Those are the big action movies, and the people watching the Oscars, that’s not the same demographic.”

Despite their downward ratings trend, the Oscars could be poised for a comeback. Kantar’s Swallen expects a bump this year with the return of Billy Crystal, who’s deftly handled the gig eight times before. This is compared to last year’s production, which will live in infamy for the disjointed hosting talents of Hathaway and Franco. That telecast drew about 38 million viewers, down some 9 percent versus 2010.

If more viewers do tune in, it may well have more to do with the choice of host than with the crop of nominated flicks, hardly a constellation of box office hits—aside from the period drama The Help, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Compare that to past years, when blockbuster nominees like Avatar and Titanic lifted Oscar viewership.


The Tree of Life, The Help, Moneyball

 

Still, don’t expect the Oscars to offset any static viewership with a flood of commercials.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences carefully monitors the volume of ads, allowing for only eight to 10 minutes of commercials per hour, including promos for ABC shows. That’s far fewer commercials than air during the typical prime-time program, which loads up on 14 to 16 minutes or more of ads in an hour. This year’s Super Bowl, by comparison, featured 13 to 14 minutes of ads per hour.

Selling more time might dilute the average price of a :30, Swallen points out. Naturally, the Academy has resisted doing so. The Oscars’ lighter commercial load is also attractive to advertisers like Hyundai, which will use the telecast to promote its Genesis and Equus models as well as the new Azera.

Says Hyundai’s Shannon: “The uncluttered environment is almost unprecedented. It really allows us room to breathe.”

If Oscar doesn’t pull down greater ratings this year, it won’t be for a lack of promotion.

ABC will capitalize on the event with an entire day of Oscar-related content, giving advertisers plenty of chance to bask in the little man’s golden glow. The network will kick off Sunday’s programming slate with an Oscar-themed Good Morning America, proceed with live coverage of red-carpet arrivals, then later in the evening air Jimmy Kimmel Live: After the Academy Awards with guests including nominees George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

ABC also has bolstered its digital tie-ins, rolling out a new generation of its Oscar mobile app and giving fans a look behind the scenes with features like “Backstage Cam.” Meantime, the already content-rich Oscar.com has been enhanced with still more history of the awards and interactive features.

Advertiser messages are integrated with coverage via all those digital platforms, which has Kantar’s Swallen wondering whether the Oscars might develop a base of multiscreen viewers, like the Olympics has.

Says Swallen: “It’ll make the franchise that much more valuable and accessible to a broader range of advertisers.”

Photo Illustrations: Darrow