Conan to Advertisers: You Disgust Me, but I Will Take Your Money

Comedian gets honest with Anderson Cooper

Headshot of Tim Nudd

CANNES, France—Conan O'Brien wants advertisers' money but also wants creative freedom with the brand integrations on his show, a requirement that benefits both sides, he told Anderson Cooper in a packed house at the Cannes Lions festival here this morning.

The talk-show host was in rare form as he and the CNN anchor—"the two whitest people in the south of France," according to O'Brien—used their Time Warner panel to discuss everything from sponsored segments on TBS's Conan show to the power of social media to O'Brien's fondness for reading Fifty Shades of Grey while wearing nipple clamps.

O'Brien said brand integrations simply don't work if they require him to be insincere or inauthentic to his own sense of humor.

"When there's a lot of cooks—and not just creatives but account people on the line—there can be ass covering. There can be corporate hedging of bets," he said of developing segments with advertisers and agencies. "Sometimes we'll have a great idea. The company will really be behind it. And then there's that phone call three weeks before, and the person says, 'At some point Conan needs to bow down before the product with great sincerity and say THIS very canned line right to camera.' And I say, 'This didn't come up before.' It's just someone saying, you know, that they're nervous."

"Even for the advertisers, I do think the authenticity thing is really important," Cooper added. "I think it works for their products when you are being authentic, even when you're poking fun at something."

"Early on, you hear, 'Snickers just wants to be involved,' " O'Brien replied. "And then later on it turns out that Conan needs to lick the Snickers bar and look to camera. And I can't. I mean, I do that in the privacy of my home. But I don't do it for money. I mean, I do it for money, but in the privacy of my home."

"Sometimes we deal with advertisers, and they get it," he added. "They know that if we can incorporate them in a way that lets me be myself—great. If sometime during the integration I have to pick up some Doritos and say 'They sure are crunchy, and delicious! Mmmmm, very satisfying!' and not acknowledge it, it's creepy. It doesn't feel right, and we have to say no."

Turning to the audience, he added: "I'm sorry, I know some of you here wrote that copy."

O'Brien gave two examples of what he considered seamless integrations on his show. One was allowing Paramount to have Will Ferrell appear in character as Ron Burgundy to announce Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The other was the ongoing "Clueless Gamer" segment, in which O'Brien reviews video games like Tomb Raider—games that he generally plays horribly while narrating, making it hilarious.

"I really think this whole segment could be renamed 'Have Your Cake and Eat It Too,' " he said. "I really enjoy making those segments. I get to be funny the way I am funny. People like it. It's an integration with the Tomb Raider people, but it works in every conceivable way."

Asked what general message he would offer advertisers, O'Brien jokingly replied: "What I have found works best is when advertisers give me a lot of money up front, with no expectations, and then they don't actually check later on to see if it's actually helped their product. … Don't waste your time on that! Just give me the money. Just wire it into my account. And if you give the money to the company, and then the company pays me, that doesn't work either. It doesn't work creatively. Just wire me the money."

More seriously, O'Brien said the transparency he brings to brand integration is the same kind of authenticity and honesty that's allowed him to build up such a huge social-media following—which in turn drives huge viral distribution of his segments when they're posted online, and has become a creative catalyst for much of his on-air content, too.

"I did things my way, for better or worse, and I think that's part of what kept my fans connected," he said, referring to his legendary fall and rise after his brief stint hosting NBC's Tonight Show.

"The grassroots nature of the movement that rescued me when I was in so much trouble a couple of years ago, that was so pure—I had nothing to do with it. It was an online rescue by younger people who said, 'We like this guy. We don't like what happened to him.' And they created this movement that swept me through a tour and then took us to TBS. That was so real. And it was always very important to me that we not screw with that. I'd rather stop doing it than continue to do it in a way that starts to become manufactured or fake."

Throughout the conversation, O'Brien also did what he does best—crack jokes.

"I love to read," he said at one point. "I read Fifty Shades of Grey. Just that same book over and over. I wear nipple clamps when I read it. Occasionally I'll just reach down and adjust the nipple clamps. You'll see me at the pool later—the really white guy with the zinc oxide on his nose, nipple clamps and Fifty Shades of Grey."

Later, he jokingly rebuked journalists in the crowd who were taking notes on their computers. "There are people here doing their taxes," he scoffed. "There are other people playing games on their phones with other people around the world. It's a disconnected community. You all disgust me, and I think we should end with that."

So they did.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.