Carefully, Adult Swim Expands Into Product Placement

Hip network ramps up partnership with Funny or Die

If you want to sit with the cool kids, you've got to look like you belong there.

At a party where Kanye West will play a full set for a venue packed to the rafters with ad buyers, that's the lesson Joe Hogan is trying to politely teach clients as part of the Adult Swim upfront, which, for the first time, is creating a comprehensive plan for product placement with a small number of integrations available to advertisers. The trick is that they're deep integrations: a restaurant could sponsor one of Carl Brutananadilewski's lengthy rants on Aqua Teen Hunger Force (actually, the upcoming season of the show is called—seriously—Aqua TiVo Avoidance Plan), for example.

Adult Swim is one of the few remaining linear networks that gets saleable traction with young men (History and ESPN are the others), and for everyone from video game merchants to potoato chip floggers, that's good news. But the audience comes with careful curation and the assumption that a false note in the programming—especially one that seems greedy—could seriously harsh the buzz that network head Mike Lazzo and his team have worked so hard to create.

"We've been thoughtful in the number of opportunities that we've had," Hogan said. "We've held this stuff fairly close." The opportunities make up for in variety what they lack in quantity: besides Carl's Rants, there's a similar integration with Newsreaders' Andy Rooneyish Skip Reming, who's forever going on about the good (?) old days ("Turkey sandwiches were a quarter, and prostitutes were two turkey sandwiches." Paging Subway!) Buyers can purchase a "marketing class" devoted to their product in the recently renewed China, IL, as well as instructional videos in Chris Elliot's Eagleheart, and NTSF:SD:SUV: will feature producer/actor Paul Sheer talking about how [your brand here] helps him keep San Diego safe.

"A 'Carl's rants' on Aqua is something that could be pretty universal—there's really nothing that we're trying to say 'This has to be a QSR,' or 'this has to be an auto,'" said Hogan. "But there are certain opportunities that lend themselves to certain brands. NTSF:SD:SUV: would lend itself to automotive."

Adult Swim has done some product placement before, but only on linear and never as an overall network strategy (there was a Boost Mobile integration on Aqua Teen in 2005 and a Scion integration on Assy McGee—don't look at me, that's what it's called—in 2008). The new plan gives the network a deliberate layout for its integrated spots, a bird's-eye view of where they'll land and when, and a compelling pitch: buy now, because we're not making any more until next season. Hogan hems and haws when asked about specific numbers of spots—there's probably some wiggle room in there somewhere, but it's not much.

The network also has an advantage in the form of several creatives who've worked in advertising before. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (better known on the channel as Tim & Eric) are probably the most familiar names to ad folks, but Funny or Die, a website that has been marrying offbeat comedy and advertising for time out of mind, now counts Time Warner as a stakeholder and uses Turner to sell its own ads.

The platform has its own integration—"Clip of the Week"—that Hogan says is going to ease viewers into the idea of more branded content on the network. "We could probably do clip of the day," Hogan says. "That would not be good for our fans. I think our fans would expect maybe a clip of the month. This is such a new introduction for adult swim, to let advertisers get closer to the fanbase." The spot will be sold as an isolated pod, which Hogan says he's happy about ("any time you can put comedy content between comedy programming!"), and it's something that can make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook just as easily as cable television.

Last year, Funny or Die created its own internal division, Gifted Youth, to generate branded material, and there's not just a great deal of talent crossover between the two organizations, there's now a direct financial link between the two of them, so new integrated ads simply codify the kind of work everybody was doing already and offer it in a non-threatening package to buyers.

Clients are by nature conservative, and that's going to be a concern as a material with the kind of edge that Adult Swim fans love can play poorly to a wider audience. Odd Future (which also has a show with Adult Swim—Loiter Squad) is dealing with fallout from a digital spot for Pepsi at which a lot of people took offense, proving pretty handily that what works in the little hermetic world of cool 18-34-year-olds doesn't necessarily work in the general market. Adult Swim had nothing to do with the production and didn't air the commercial, but the incident emphasizes how carefully the network has to craft each of these integrations: edgy, but not nasty; sly, but not offensive.

"I think, again, because Lazzo has been so good about creative freedom and making sure that things are on-brand, our talent is always seemingly excited to work with us. We wouldn't be putting these out to the marketplace if they were not on brand," says Hogan.

And clients want it? "They do," he says. "There's been pent-up demand."