Contextual advertising has been popular online and on some specialized cable networks, most notably the Food Network, for years. But recently, the practice has been increasingly used by the more mass-reach broadcast networks.
Some of the broadcast networks have started custom ad content divisions, which work with advertisers, their media buying agencies and their creative agencies to create specialized commercials that can relate to the show they will air in.
Commercial clutter is clearly driving this trend. "In the past several years, everyone is trying to break through the clutter to get their commercials to be more closely tied to content," says Jim Hoffman, svp, sales and marketing, network entertainment group at NBC Universal, which has a custom content unit charged with finding ways to tie products into scripted content beyond simple product integration. (Related: "A Place for Everything")
Still, creating that link can be complex for a network broadly programmed for large audiences. In that environment, contextual advertising is easier on a single-themed reality show like NBC's The Biggest Loser, which can run weight-loss product ads. In a scripted show, the lead-out spot has to be contextually tied into something that was happening in the show. If there is a scene in a shower, then the first commercial in the next pod would be for shampoo.
Moreover, creating these customized spots is time-consuming and much more expensive for advertisers. But those who are doing it feel it's worth it.
T-Mobile, for one, began with its ads featuring National Basketball Association star Dwyane Wade and TNT NBA commentator Charles Barkley three years ago on TNT's National Basketball Association pre-game show and during games.
"In the wireless category, there is a lot of heavy ad spending and a lot of consumer confusion about which brand is advertising what features," says Brett Dennis, director of branded entertainment and media management at T-Mobile. "Our competitors outspend us, so we try to be smarter by trying to capture more targeted audiences. Our contextual spots are meant to augment our traditional :30s...We try to make them as organic to the content of the shows as possible."
For example, as part of a series of spots called "Connections to Talk About," T-Mobile ran a two-minute spot in this season's premiere episode of 90210, which featured all the different relationship triangles on the show from the previous season and tied them into T-Mobile's campaign about connecting people. A similar spot ran in The CW's Vampire Diaries, featuring vignettes of the dating patterns and relationships of all the characters and tying those relationships back to connecting via T-Mobile cell phones.
"Our thinking is to work with advertisers to come up with ad content that our viewers care about so they will keep them watching the commercials during a particular show," says Alison Tarrant, svp, integrated sales and marketing at The CW.
Keith Mackay, evp, managing director of Optimedia, which is T-Mobile's media agency, agrees that advertising on the broadcast networks can no longer only be about mass reach and that integrations need to be more pervasive. "We are looking to build contextual sponsorships on a regular basis," he says. Another Optimedia client, HomeAway.com -- an online listing of vacation rentals worldwide -- premiered its national advertising with a spot during the Super Bowl. Mackay says the agency is now working with the Travel Channel to develop entertaining contextual ad content.
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