Putting It In Context

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.

Chrysler has been working with NBC to do a number of contextual ads. During the Golden Globe Awards, Chrysler ran six spots at the end of each ad pod leading back into the telecast that tied its cars into sponsoring the next award. NBC also created a contextual spot for Honda in which two characters from the sitcom Chuck traveled in a Honda car to the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic game, televised by NBC in January.

ABC actually enlisted Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry to write and direct an eight-minute contextual commercial miniseries (which ran as one-minute spots in consecutive weeks) sponsored by Sprint. Each spot contained part of an overall story about a wife who catches her husband cheating on her by using various features of a Sprint mobile phone.

“It’s the client’s commercial time, but it’s aligned with our shows, so it gives both of us promotional benefit,” says Jerry Daniello, ABC’s svp, integrated marketing. “It’s much more special than simple integration, and it makes the client’s product stand out more.”

Brian Terkelsen, president of MediaVest’s connective tissue, says, “Contextual advertising has been the premise of my entire business since 2003. The notion of reinventing advertising is to make it contextual.” Terkelsen adds, “If you don’t interrupt the viewers and keep the message in the wheelhouse of the show, the viewer will stay and watch it.”

In addition to its televising of the T-Mobile contextual spots, Turner Broadcasting in 2008 launched TVinContext, which offers advertisers an opportunity to run 30-second commercials adjacent to contextually relevant scenes from its movie library. Advertisers are placed in the A-pod position immediately following a contextually relevant scene. Stacey Lynn Schulman, svp of Turner ad sales and research, says advertisers like SC Johnson, OnStar and NY Life have already participated.

And on Feb. 24, TBS premiered a contextual microseries presented by Disney Parks that aired within Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns sitcom.

“Agencies have been trying to differentiate their clients and trying to get them to stand out for years,” says Schulman. “The networks are finally starting to offer opportunities to make that happen.”

Advertisers will pay a premium for placing their traditional :30s contextual locations in Turner’s TVinContext. And while advertisers also will have to foot the additional production costs for doing special custom-content contextual commercials, MediaVest’s Terkelsen believes the extra cost will still be worth it. “It will be more expensive for advertisers, but it will be more effective,” he says.

And down the road, Terkelsen believes the more advertisers, agencies and networks that begin producing custom contextual spots, the more scalable it will become. “Whoever cracks that code first,” he says, “will have a big leg up on everyone.”