Adult Swim Wins Key Demo—and Advertisers

Put this in your bong and smoke it: Long dismissed as a cultish backwater for marijuana enthusiasts and shiftless geeks, Adult Swim is absolutely crushing it in that most universal of demos, viewers 18-49. And as befits cable’s reigning couch-lock network, those who are tuning in are decidedly not zoning out during commercial breaks.

The perennial king of the 18-34 heap, Adult Swim closed out 2010 ranked No. 1 in total-day among the 18-49 set, a first for the network. With that expanded reach, Adult Swim has begun attracting a broader swath of advertisers, many of which have been won over by its high retention rates.

Per Nielsen, approximately 98 percent of Adult Swim viewers 18-49 stick around during commercial breaks, and as the net’s sales team will demonstrate in its 2011-12 upfront spiel, the audience is uncommonly engaged with the commercial environment. (Ads that run in Adult Swim pods are more engrossing than those that run on 81 percent of all other TV environments, according to Innerscope research data.)

“We’ve been perceived as a snarky environment, but what we’re seeing in the data is the emotional connection viewers have with the network,” said Stacey Schulman, SVP of sports and sales research, Turner Broadcasting. “And that translates into an amazing capacity to hold people through the breaks.”

Oddly enough, Adult Swim’s signature bumpers are the flour that binds the secret sauce. Engagement levels spike when a spot follows one of these 15-second promos, many of which are naked pleas for viewers to hang in there for the commercials.

One recent effort that kept fans locked in before a break was particularly meta. “We know that a commercial break is coming up, but please don’t go,” the bumper jokily implored. “Look, it’s a sparkler. Shiny.” At the moment the flaring pink pyrotechnic device flashed on the screen, viewer attention began to spike, setting the table for a more receptive audience for the breaks that followed immediately thereafter.

Adult Swim’s in-house production crew is so prolific that individual bumpers aren’t likely to wear out their welcome. “They rarely run more than once,” said said John O’Hara, EVP and general sales manager of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. “There’s a whole group of people down there in Atlanta who are responsible for creating bumpers every day.”
The bumpers generally begin appearing in what O’Hara characterizes as the “traditional Adult Swim block,” from midnight to 3 a.m. That chunk of real estate is home to the network’s original franchise series, including Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Robot Chicken and Childrens Hospital. The net ramps up the weirdness slowly, jumping off at 9 p.m. with animated acquisitions King of the Hill before throwing to its biggest draw, Family Guy.

O’Hara said his team’s upfront pitch is designed to redefine the notion of what constitutes a top-tier network. “We’ve got the brand and the reach and the demos and your ads are more likely to be seen on Adult Swim,” he said. “That’s what being a top-tier network is all about. We sort of feel like we shouldn’t have to keep fighting the misperception that the audience is primarily made up out of stoners.”

For all that, O’Hara concedes that there is only so much a network can do to boost viewer receptivity if the client is running sub-par commercials.
“Our job is to provide an ideal environment for your ad,” he said. “It’s up to you. It’s your message. If your creative sucks, it sucks, but we can still give you a much better swing at bat.”