NEW YORK A 25-year-old woman having a bad hair day doesn't sound like enough to base a TV dramedy on, but JWT and its Unilever Sunsilk client bet it was enough to carry a microseries. Turns out, they were right.
"Lovebites," now in its second season on TBS, consists of two-minute episodes that appear at the end of Sex and the City reruns. The effort, like the live-action shorts on NBC promoting Bee Movie, is part of a new breed of advertainment inspired by marketers who want new ways to build brands and interest consumers, and TV networks looking to protect ad dollars as marketing budgets increasingly shift to other media.
The 65-episode series isn't actually limited to the premise of a bad hair day, but since the entertainment platform is, however subtly, to advertise Sunsilk's line of hair-care products, discussions about hair and style are central to several episodes. The lead character, Callie, is an assistant style editor at elle.com who, per the promotions, is having a "quarter-life crises." She's "the girl who does it all ... juggling life, love, work, dating, designer shoes and of course, her hair!" describes one of the Web sites running the "Lovebites" program. Callie is an attempt by Unilever and its ad agency, JWT, to create a character who represents the core attributes of the key Sunsilk consumer: young, sophisticated and stylish.
The story of Callie began in 2004 at the National Association of Television Program Executives, when veteran agency broadcast producer John Garland, then COO of JWT, New York, and executive producer of the agency's JWTwo Entertainment division, was scouring the content offerings for client-appropriate entertainment properties. Garland came across "Love Bugs," a French-Canadian micro-comedy about the everyday life of a couple. The show, produced by Avanti Cine Video and sold by Distraction Formats, had already been successfully exported to numerous overseas markets including France, where it runs in daily 7-minute segments, Italy and the Ukraine. With the 2006 U.S. launch of Sunsilk in mind, Garland says, he purchased the option rights to adapt the show for a U.S. audience. "What I found up until that point was that trying to create entirely original content and bringing an advertiser into that space is a difficult exercise," Garland explains. "In looking at the structure of the show and the brands we were working with, Sunsilk seemed to fit. I thought we could take ["Love Bugs"], strip it down and reconstruct it around the brand brief. The question was, could we persuade top Hollywood writers and producers to essentially take a brand brief and write to it?"
Garland turned to Peter Isacksen, a Los Angeles-based TV producer and former actor who created the Arthur Andersen-supported CNN series Business Unusual and was once a partner at radio commercial production firm Bert Berdis & Co. "I only knew Unilever from what they had done with Axe," says Isacksen. "As a packaged-goods company, they seemed fairly courageous."
They put together a show proposal based on the original, but before taking the idea to Unilever, Isacksen says, they needed a "wow factor" to help create client confidence in the unproven entertainment-advertising hybrid. Through a relationship with CAA, he enlisted the writing talents of comedian Paul Reiser, whose background as creator and star of TV relationship sitcom Mad About You seemed well suited for the project. For directing and production, they turned to Leslie Grief, a writer, director and producer whose credits include the features Keys to Tulsa and Funny Money, as well as TV programming such as the TCM documentaries Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool and Brando.
Unilever agreed to license the program, now called "Lovebites," from JWT and became a development partner. The next step was to find a media partner. "We decided dealing with the networks would be too onerous, both from the number of committees you have to deal with [to] standards and practices," says Garland. "The inventory was more flexible on cable. We weaved together an ad sales deal combined with programming."
Linda Yaccarino, evp of sales and marketing at Turner Entertainment, says the target audience of the Unilever brand mirrored that of TBS viewers. "The Sunsilk target consumer was identical to the TBS viewer—very young, very hip, female," she says. "We felt the concept was right."
Season one, which included 83 episodes that ran on TBS during Sex and the City as well as online and on Wal-Mart TV, had promising results, maintaining the same audience level as Sex and the City with a prime-time average of about a .5 rating, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
However, early in the season, the team got snagged in a legal battle with the show's creator, who expressed creative differences with how "Lovebites" was being adapted. In the end, JWT and Avanti came to an agreement that allows Avanti to shop the original "Love Bugs" concept to other U.S. companies, while JWT retains full ownership of "Lovebites."
With ratings numbers showing the series was keeping TBS viewers watching during the commercial breaks, the team began contemplating where to take the series next. They first decided to change the content so that various aspects of the brand could be better integrated into the storyline and to reach more of the overall 18- to 34-year-old Sunsilk consumer. According to Gabe Goldberg, executive idea director at JWTwo, the change afforded them the opportunity to broaden the series from the story of a twentysomething couple to the life of a 25-year-old, including her work and social life. It also allowed the show more room to reference the brand's traditional ad campaign, which urges consumers to get "Hairapy."
"We loved what we did with season one, but we saw an opportunity to dive deeper into the 25-year-old character and what it means to have a 'quarter-life crisis,'" says Goldberg, "which girls have at 25 when they are trying to figure out who they are, what is their relationship to the world, how to balance work, love, family and life and the search for love."
To help build a stronger link between the advertising and entertainment messaging, JWT brought in creative director Dave O'Hare, whose experience includes Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, and, more recently, writing for TV and film.
"If you don't understand one or the other [advertising or entertainment], it's tough to do branded content," he says. "It's hard for a screenwriter to jump in and make it happen. They're still thinking that it's product placement and have to mention the car two or three times."
The product appears in both seasons of "Lovebites," but it plays a larger role in season two. The follow-up also incorporates the "Hairapy" ad campaign, which casts the brand as a hair problem solver via spots featuring a therapist character who offers style and social advice. One TV spot, for example, discusses a showdown between blondes and brunettes. In "Lovebites," Callie's arch enemy is a brunette, and the salon she frequents is named "Hairapy." Another way the team integrated traditional branding into the microseries is by using a color palette consistent with the product design and advertising.
"Balancing the entertainment and branding value is always a challenge," says Cynthia Safford, senior marketing manager at Unilever. "If we're going to be a credible source in her life ... it had to be less about having the products in the show and [more about] good entertainment."
For season two, the team also wanted to expand the show's reach. In addition to distributing the series on TV, the network and product Web sites and mobile phones using Verizon Wireless V-cast, the show is now also featured on elle.com and glam.com, incorporated into social networking sites like Facebook, embedded into banner ads, and promoted via TBS programming such as Dinner & a Movie. A behind-the-scenes blog was also launched.
Additionally, a consumer contest, Pitch Your Quarter-Life Comedy, was built around the show. It allows viewers a chance to win a Hollywood makeover and to pitch their personal stories to the show's producers.
The lead character's job at the fictional online site of elle.com also brings added value beyond media distribution. For instance, in one episode, Callie put on an event during New York Fashion Week that provided added pop culture power thanks to Fall Out Boy Pete Wentz making cameo appearances in two episodes.
"It's doing great and all indications show that 'Lovebites' will continue to do well. Things look good," says Yaccarino. "Turner Broadcasting has been in the customized marketing business for a long time. This is the next evolution."And Isacksen would like to see more of it as well—literally. "In between season two and three, knocking on wood, part of the discussion will be how do we increase the length of this," he says. "That's been everybody's eventual goal. 'Lovebites' is a beta test to grow it into longer form."