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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

Michael Caulfield/WireImage

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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.”

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