Ads You Didn’t (and Won’t) See On The Oscars Telecast

If you spent any time this past weekend watching the many programs that obsess over the Oscar races (or the fashions, or the personalities), you may have seen an ad from HP for its photo printers featuring Abigail Breslin, the 10-year-old star of Little Miss Sunshine, who garnered a best supporting actress nomination. You also may have noticed that you didn’t see the spot during the Oscar telecast itself.

That’s not because HP didn’t want to spend the estimated $1.7 million for a 30-second unit. To the contrary, the tech company thought it had hit the marketing jackpot when Breslin was nominated just a few weeks after filming the ad. Derrith Lambka, director of advertising and brand management at HP Printing and Imaging in Vancouver, Wash., said the company was all set to buy time on the telecast until its media agency, ZenithOptimedia, informed it of a long-standing policy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences barring ads that feature nominees and presenters.

“We were quite disappointed because we thought, we sure are trendsetters. Here we’re using her and she’s nominated. … [But] the academy wouldn’t even let us buy the red carpet walk-throughs,” she said about the alternatives HP considered. “We were mystified as to how these two things relate, because the votes have already been cast.”

Instead, HP put the 30-second spot, in which Breslin shows personal photographs she printed on HP’s color printer, into heavy rotation on Oscar-related programming such as The Oprah Winfrey Oscar Special and The Barbara Walters Special, which immediately preceded the telecast. It has also been running on programs featuring Oscar-related segments such as Good Morning America, The View, Access Hollywood and Today.

But the policy for the Oscars telecast bars more than just ads featuring nominees. In an unconventional arrangement, the academy has for more than 25 years been allowed to pre-screen all commercial content on the show, rejecting any products or themes that it deems “unglamorous.” (The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences said it does not have approval rights or control over spots CBS sells for the Grammys telecast. Ditto for the NFL and the Super Bowl, the Golden Globes and the Emmys.)

The academy won’t publicly discuss which categories aren’t allowed, but sources said they include deodorants, feminine hygiene products, anti-depressants, erectile dysfunction pills, laxatives or anything else it deems distasteful. As AMPAS executive administrator Ric Robertson joked by way of explanation, “The academy doesn’t recognize aging.” He would not specify which product categories were off-limits, but did acknowledge that the academy strives “to maintain a level of elegance and class to the event.”

Most important is the academy’s strictly enforced policy against ads that feature any Oscar nominee or presenter during the broadcast, said Robertson. “That’s one of our most important issues,” he explained. “In the same vein, neither can a studio run an ad of an upcoming release. We don’t want there to be the slightest hint of any conflict there.”

One spot was rejected some years ago simply for simulating an awards show, he said.

The academy and ABC executives began viewing spots about four weeks ago from every advertiser who bought time on the show, Robertson said. But because the network and media agencies are so familiar with the broadcasting guidelines, none were rejected.

Given the Academy’s quest for purity, it may come as a surprise to learn that it hopes to one day have its ads generate as much buzz as the famously ribald Super Bowl commercials, according to Robertson. “It’s possible to create buzz with outstanding advertising without pushing the boundaries of taste. That would be our goal,” he said. —with Steve McClellan