General Electric's history is firmly rooted in Americana, with the likes of Thomas Edison and Ronald Reagan mingling with the utility giant. Reagan hosted the TV show General Electric Theater from 1954 to 1962, a weekly half-hour program sponsored by the company that Edison founded in 1892.
Now GE is revisiting its past to illustrate imagination as the key to invention with a series of theatrical-style short films that serve as the centerpiece of its nontraditional advertising.
The conservative marketer—its "We bring good things to life" traditional-media campaign ran from 1979 to 2002—is now using digital formats in novel ways to take on a formidable commercial foe like ad-skipping DVR users. For video-on-demand ads on digital cable, the 115-year-old company has created four short films and is stretching conventional ads to provide extra footage for the format. And its Web sites are sprinkled with films narrated by actor Kevin Kline regarding what the company is doing to improve the environment through water, wind, solar and locomotion technologies.
This month, GE will debut round two of its "One Second Theater" campaign, which is targeted at TiVo users. Three new spots will try to entice viewers to click during a traditional TV ad to receive bonus content; two more ads will follow.
"Four years ago, GE was only on TV and mostly on the Sunday morning news shows," says Judy Hu, GE's global head of advertising and branding. "Over the past year, we have been challenging our agencies to come up with ideas that are not strictly TV in nature."
That's not to say TV is out by any means. Just last week, GE launched the second phase of its "Ecomagination" campaign, from BBDO in New York, which touts GE's strategy to create more efficient products with less impact on the environment. BBDO has been GE's agency since 1920. (OMD handles GE's media buys.) The tagline for the effort, like all of GE's advertising since January 2003—when the company started to use digital media as part of its corporate branding—is "Imagination at work."
GE, like other marketers, has since earmarked a growing part of its advertising bud-get to new media. In 2002, GE spent $66 million promoting its corporate image, and none of that was on the Internet. The company spent $313,000 on the Internet in 2006—still less than 1 percent of its ad spend, per TNS Media Intelligence. The company will not discuss specific numbers, but says it has "invested significantly" in new media over the last four years.
If GE intended to "own" imagination in the public's mind, as Don Schneider, BBDO's executive creative director, describes it, then it needed a unifying format to drive the theme. "When we started thinking about this, it hit us that we were sitting on something very valuable from GE's past in the form of GE Theater," Schneider says. "GE Theater took entertainment and branded that entertainment, which helped make GE more human. It was a slam dunk."
For David Lubars, chairman and CCO of BBDO North America, "Imagination at work" is an entire corporate philosophy that can be spread across all media. "In today's world, clients need a really big idea that can be executed in all different ways," he says. "The idea is so big and simple that you can communicate it in a text message. But you shouldn't do these things because it is cool to do. It has to be routed in the needs of the client. This is a large client, and this is about how to communicate the brand's core strength and values."
With all the talk about managing the chaos generated by emerging media, Schneider says the ad game is still best played by clients and agencies who create content that prompts consumers to come calling. And not just any consumer. GE set out to deliberately entice one of the toughest audiences out there—the folks who watch programs but skip the ads.
So the company took a popular spot called "Dancin' Elephant" from BBDO's first round of work promoting the "Ecomagination" initiative, and created additional programming that TiVo users would see when they clicked on the ad. GE promoted the additional content at the beginning of the spot by saying the following message contained a "secret."
The content consisted of eight extra frames of made-up stories about the theatrical backgrounds of the animals who starred in the original ad. "Elli the Elephant" even had her own MySpace page.
GE says that nearly 8 percent of all TiVo users watched the ad, and spent an average of two minutes with it. GE regards the effort as a success when you consider that more than 4.5 million households have TiVo subscriptions, according to the DVR service provider. Add in cable companies that also market digital video recorders, and the technology is used by 13 percent of American households, according to Forrester Research. Forrester predicts that by 2010, 50 percent of households will have the technology.
Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester, says the 8 percent figure is "not unreasonable." "It proves something can be done," he adds. "But the question is, how will they take advantage of that in the future?"
"The numbers speak for themselves," Hu says. "Viewers ended up spending two to three minutes with the 30-second bonus segments—three-and-a-half times longer than they spent watching other commercials. We like to say that we asked consumers for one second, and they gave us two minutes."
Hu acknowledges that there were several risks associated with targeting TiVo users, including the possibility that they might not respond at all. The ad itself was not product specific and the bonus content used "edgy" humor that, as Hu describes it, ran the risk of going too far. One frame describing the elephant's background says, "It was hard to imagine Elli ever recovering from the teenage exploitation film Don't Touch That Trunk and the well-publicized 'peanut' scandal."
While GE admits the idea to take on TiVo users was not unique, it claims it was the first to turn an ad into a full program carrier. (In February 2006, KFC targeted TiVo users by embedding the word "buffalo" in an ad that ran on network TV, and consumers could call to redeem a coupon for a chicken sandwich.)
Next Act for 'One Second Theater'
Building on the success of the "Dancin' Elephant" TiVo experiment, GE will use more spots from its recent "Ecomagination" work to introduce the next phase of "One Second Theater." One 30-second spot called "Fishing," which launched on TV Feb. 5, shows fishermen reeling in a huge catch. The haul turns out to be hundreds of water bottles to promote GE's water desalination efforts, and any fish caught by mistake are cast back. To lure TiVo users, BBDO has created a back story for the water bottle, and like the "Dancin' Elephant" spot, has embedded a series of bonus frames. One of the added frames, which will appear to TiVo users this month, reads: "The record-breaking bottle-nosed water bottle is currently delighting crowds as a performer at a local aquatic park. His signature trick consists of leaping through a ring of fire. Rumor has it the dolphins at the park are not amused."
GE also wanted to take advantage of its partnership with NBC and Time Warner Cable, so VOD became the next digital vehicle for its ads. Continuing the themes of imagination and theater, BBDO created "GE Imagination Theater," which consists of four short films. No individual GE product is mentioned in any of the films, which can also be seen at www.ge.com/imaginationtheater.
The assignment was to show something or someone using imagination to solve a problem. So BBDO's Lubars allowed everyone in the New York office—beyond just the GE team—to submit film ideas, and in the end, GE had more than 100 from which to choose. The campaign launched with an animated short film called the "The Crossing" in November 2006, followed by "Cubicle" in the same month. In "Cubicle," an employee is promoted for spending 24 hours a day at his job. The humorous twist—that the employee slept in his cubicle because he couldn't find affordable rent—illustrates his creative solution to a problem. (GE recently took a 45-second spot called "Jar," and extended it to 90 seconds for VOD. "Jar" launched Jan. 6 during the NFL playoffs.)
Separately, GE hired New York-based agency Syrup to create five films and build a new version of its Ecomagination.com site. The films highlight a solar-powered winery in California, a water desalination plant in Algeria, diesel-powered trains in Erie, Pa., GE90 aircraft engines in Ohio and an off-shore wind farm in Arklow, Ireland. At the wind farm, seven GE-built wind turbines provide energy to power 16,000 homes in the Irish town. "Mankind has harnessed the power of wind for centuries," Kline says in the film. "But never before has it been achieved with such imagination."
Jennifer Walsh, GE's digital media director, considers the films a good way to portray GE products in action. Another series of Web-based films, also available on Time Warner as part of its VOD offerings, show GE employees discussing their problem-solving skills.
"We are also looking into the possibility of inviting end users to tell their stories," Walsh says. "It is another way to engage consumers."
GE's goal in the future is to experiment with digital media as much as possible—"that happens to be a core GE process anyway," Hu says.
As BBDO's Schneider puts it, "GE wants to be at the forefront, and if we are going to be pioneers in technology, then we should be there in media as well."