High 5: ESPN, NFL Prove Their Mettle With Mystery Candy Bar

Net cooks up phony sweets to help boost research efforts

If ESPN were to try its hand at the confectionary arts, one might naturally assume the network would lean toward a sports-themed candy bar. The Reggie! Bar comes to mind, that peanut-studded hockey puck of caramel and milk chocolate that landed on shelves in 1978, packaged in a bright orange wrapper bearing the likeness of Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson.

But ESPN’s High 5 bar has more in common with Roald Dahl’s Wonka Bar than anything you’re likely to see lined up next to the Baby Ruths at the Stop & Shop. For one thing, it doesn’t exist.

As part of an initiative to assess how advertising performs in ESPN’s NFL content, the network hired an agency to create a TV, digital, and print campaign in support of the fictitious candy bar. Essentially, the High 5 was thought to serve as a perfect control in a study of commercial effectiveness, given that viewers would carry no preconceived notions about a wholly imaginary brand.

The lengths to which ESPN and the marketing agency B.R. Zoom went in order to convince the test subjects of the brand’s veracity were almost absurdly baroque. Everything had to be built from the ground up, from the packaging—the wrapper’s primary color scheme is a sort of butterscotch and chocolate pairing—to the 30-second commercial designed to introduce the phantom product. From nougat to nuts, the process took nearly three months.

The final result might fool even Augustus Gloop. Set in a sports memorabilia shop after hours, the spot features a group of animated trading cards enthusing over a High 5 bar. As a Honus Wagner look-alike barks out a list of ingredients, there are the inevitable money shots of molten chocolate engulfing roasted peanuts, caramel sine waves, and peanut butter vortices.

Once the commercial was ready for consumption, ESPN essentially had the High 5 spot compete with three ads for authentic and recognized national candy bar brands. The upshot: When introduced within the context of ESPN’s NFL coverage, favorable ratings for High 5 increased 40 percent versus when the same ad was shown during non-NFL programming.

Perhaps more importantly, NFL fans reported that they would pay a 10 percent premium for a High 5 bar after viewing the spot during ESPN’s pigskin coverage.

Ultimately, the High 5 results suggest that the NFL is perhaps the most engaging content in which to advertise. Fans have such a strong affiliation with the NFL that it gives a “lift” to client brands—so much so that many consumers said they’d be willing to pay more money for a product showcased in that particular context.

If nothing else, the High 5 experiment demonstrates the lengths to which ESPN will go to help advertisers find the most receptive audience for their brands. “This project is unprecedented,” said Barbara Singer, vp, advertiser insights and strategy, ESPN. “As far as we know, no one has ever before created a product in order to demonstrate the value of their own media environment.”

And given that a 30-second spot on ESPN’s Monday Night Football can fetch upwards of $250,000 a pop, a rate that’s comparable to what broadcasters can fetch with many prime-time dramas and comedy packages, it’s understandable why the network is eager to help clients comparison shop.

“It’s a way to hold up our end of the deal with advertisers,” Singer said. “We can demonstrate the value of their NFL dollars versus just about anything else in prime time.”

Research has always been a top priority at ESPN. In March 2010, the network launched ESPN XP, an initiative designed to study consumer behavior as it relates to consumption of major sporting events, across various media platforms. A great deal of the network’s research is now being carried out at the Disney Media and Ad Lab in Austin, Texas, where it has been using science to help demonstrate the viability of emerging platforms such as 3-D TV.