Live Commercials Return to TV

As Garmin was working on its TV plan for the second quarter last year, the company issued a challenge for itself and its network partners to come up with new and creative ideas to get the GPS maker’s message across. NBC sales and marketing presented a rather novel proposal in response. “To NBC’s credit, they were like, ‘What if we do a live commercial? If you guys are open to that, we’ll try pitching that idea to The Tonight Show and NBC executives,” Garmin media and sponsorship manager Steve Lovell recounts.

The idea was green lit, and last June a live commercial for Garmin ran on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in the form of a 45-second skit starring the show’s announcer, John Melendez, as a doctor diagnosing men who refuse to ask for directions with an affliction called direction disorder, then prescribing them Garmin GPS devices as a cure.

There was a lot of buzz around the effort. Leno even talked up the live commercial on his show in the days before it aired.

Leno isn’t the only star hot on the concept of live commercials. ABC recently told Adweek that late-night host Jimmy Kimmel will start doing one live 60-second commercial during each episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, beginning as early as mid-May.

“He’s embracing them. They’re not a joke for him,” Doug Hochstadt, ABC vp, late-night sales, says of Kimmel. “He sees the potential for growth both revenue-wise and as a constructive tool for the late-night landscape.”

ABC’s Kimmel news comes on the heels of a mini-revival of the live commercial that began last year with Garmin’s foray into the arena. Miller Chill and Toyota subsequently tested the tactic, one that was commonplace back in the early days of television, when much of the programming was live.

Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson did live commercials, and they were seen on the daytime soaps, too. But live commercials died out in the 1970s when shows became pre-recorded and the single sponsor gave way to multiple advertisers.

Like the live commercials from back in the day, the recent spate relies on the TV personalities associated with the various shows, like Kimmel. Miller Chill was promoted on NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien in August with a spoof of Japanese commercials that had the show’s drummer, Max Weinberg, enjoying the brew with two bikini-clad girls. Ellen DeGeneres made a pitch for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid last November during her syndicated The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres, who demonstrated the vehicle’s features, including a second row of fold-down seats, went as far as to lay atop the vehicle and encourage her viewers to buy it.

Although live commercials mean additional revenue for the shows and networks, the main reason advertisers are interested in them is obvious: The spots are ingrained into the fabric of a show, and therefore DVR-proof. Furthermore, Shari Post, NBC vp, daytime and late-night sales, maintains that because live commercials are crafted to fit in with the tone and feel of the programs, they can make a greater impact than traditional spots. Post references IAG Research that “shows live commercials tend to do better than straight ads in terms of brand recall and likability.”

Specifically, IAG Research, a syndicated research company (which, like Adweek, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.) that measures the effectiveness of television advertising and product placement as well as viewer engagement with TV, found that the live Garmin commercial on The Tonight Show was recalled significantly better by viewers than traditional Garmin ads, with brand recall rated 76 percent higher. Garmin’s live commercial also scored significantly higher in likability, which is the percentage of viewers remembering and liking an ad. In this case, the live commercial scored 93 percent higher.