TV advertisers, networks try more ways to snag viewers

The makeover continues this season for the traditional blocks of 30-second TV commercials known as ad "pods."

Digital video recorders, changing viewer habits, a cluttered ad landscape and new ratings measures are inspiring a search for more pod-busting ad techniques. They include teasers for upcoming longer ads (yes, commercials for commercials), ads with mini dramas or comedies and more roles for brands in the shows.

"For the first time, networks are searching for ways to get viewers to stay tuned to commercials," says Steven Sternberg, an audience analyst for ad-buying giant Magna Global. "And for the first time, they are working with advertisers to research the most effective commercial pod structures."

Not that networks are eager to give up the 30-second format, which still accounts for 57% of TV advertising, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 30-second format is cost-efficient to make, is a convenient standard selling unit and is easy to mix and match to build pods.

Networks also have been packing in more ad time, making it harder for an advertiser to get noticed in the clutter. The number of broadcast network prime-time ads in 2006 fell 1% vs. 2005 to 11,546, but the commercial time in 2006 rose 2.4% to 5,429 minutes.

Meanwhile, DVRs — which give viewers control over ads they see — are expected to be in 30% of U.S. TV households by 2009, according to eMarketer.

Advertisers, who evaluate their cost based on the number of viewers they reach, want to pay only for people who actually watch. Nielsen this fall is helping them calculate that by providing ratings for ad break viewing (including delayed via DVR) separate from the traditional rating for the program around the ads.

Pod-busting ideas:

•TBS. The cable comedy network will offer marketers "bitcoms" in the first quarter — an original comedy sketch involving a brand, followed by its ad.

TBS also is putting in more series this fall a type of promotional teaser tested last year in episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. The brief cartoon teaser in the first commercial break tells viewers a funny ad is coming up (users so far include Geico and Pepto-Bismol). In October, TBS added them to Family Guy and House of Payne. The network says they boost ad viewing and help attract humorous commercials for its shows.

"We thought, 'Doesn't it make sense to put a funny commercial in a funny show on a funny network?' Advertisers want their ad in the right environment," says Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president of Turner Entertainment ad sales and marketing. She says the "commercial for a commercial" helps retain viewers and boosts brand recall and likability for advertisers.

•Allstate all. In a deal with NBC, a safe-driving message was written into a recent episode of NBC's Friday Night Lights. The end of the show then blended seamlessly into a somber 60-second commercial about teen drivers, using Allstate spokesman Dennis Haysbert. The ad featured an original song by Jason Wade of the band Lifehouse about losing a friend in an accident.

"We're trying to connect advertising with our content," says Marianne Gambelli, president at NBC Network ad sales. "If people are engaged with the content and the characters, they'll engage with the product."

•Elizabeth Arden rden. On Wednesday, on VH1's Soul Vibe Awards Special, the company will launch fragrance M by Mariah Carey with a 2½-minute montage of images, trivia, concert footage of the pop star and an ad message.

"It's designed that way to retain the audience to make sure they don't walk away," says Tanya Zvonkin, group director of national broadcast for ad-buying firm PHD, who configured the ad for the show. "There will be no bathroom breaks in my commercials."

•Sunsilk. The Unilever un hair care brand worked with TBS to create Lovebites, a series of two-minute "minisodes" about 25-year-old Callie and her struggles with love and career. They open with "Sunsilk proudly presents" and end with an offer of product samples at the Sunsilk website. The series recently began a second season during Sex and the City.

"We're getting into more creative stuff, which is fun," says Yaccarino. TBS is working with advertisers for two more minisodes series for next year.

•Warner Bros. To drive opening weekend box office for the film Fred Claus, the studio last week sponsored the Monday 8-to-10 p.m. block of four sitcoms on CBS that included How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Rules of Engagement. Dubbed "Better Watch Out Monday Night," each show opened with a 15-second bit with the "Watch Out" theme that had a three-second clip from the film and a message to stay tuned for a sneak preview. After Rules of Engagement, a 90-second trailer aired.

CBS is continuing to try to be creative. "It's about providing a full experience for the viewer so they don't feel as much the need to walk away," says Linda Rene, senior vice president of network sales. "It's not all going to work, but something is going to stick here and there."

•General Motors. gm The No. 2 U.S. ad spender continues to look beyond 30-second ads. GM kicked off the fall season with a roster of CBS tie-ins, including putting its vehicles in shows such as CSI and CSI: Miami. Also, CSI: Miami cast member Adam Rodriguez appeared with Cadillac's CTS throughout premiere week in promotions for CBS shows.

Says Betsy Lazar, GM's head of advertising and media operations, "Marketers are identifying (programming options) and engaging consumers in different ways beyond the commercial."


Don't pick on the pup.

Miller Brewing ads have taken shots at Anheuser-Busch bud products, but Miller touched a nerve with a new TV ad that shows one of A-B's beloved Dalmatians abandoning his post on a Budweiser Clydesdale hitch for a ride in a Miller Lite truck. A-B fired back with a USA TODAY ad. "Their latest attack? Our wagon-riding Dalmatian. Our response? A donation to a number of animal rescue groups," it read.

"We decided to turn their negative into a positive gesture from us," says David Peacock, A-B marketing vice president.

The good deed hasn't inspired Miller to puppy love: "We're going to continue to point out that Miller Lite is a doggone better beer, with doggone less carbs and calories than Bud Light," retorts spokesman Julian Green.

Scratch 'n gift.

That smell wafting from wallets? It ain't greenbacks. It's, well … it's strawberry pie. Specifically, a Shoney's gift card scented to smell like the casual-dining chain's famous fruit dessert.

This month, Shoney's began to offer the berry-scented gift card in amounts up to $100. And, no, gift card recipients don't have to buy pie with it — it's good for anything on the menu. Those who aren't bowled over by berry soon will have other choices: Shoney's will offer chocolate-scented "hot fudge cake" and maple-scented "pancake" gift cards as well.

Bah, humbug.

A survey just confirmed what most workers already know: Office gift swaps are as much fun as unjamming the office copier. More than 30% of folks who have received gifts from a co-worker just throw them out, according to a phone poll of more than 1,000 people commissioned by Time Inc.'s magazine subscription company Giftscriptions. Some 20% of respondents said they've received an "inappropriate" gift from a co-worker. (Giftscriptions, unfortunately, didn't press for details.) Our advice: Skip the Secret Santa swap and spend the money on after-work drinks — co-workers optional.

Super Bowl ad watch:

As of Friday, Fox had just one 30-second slot left in its Super Bowl XLII ad inventory. A-B, Frito-Lay, and Bridgestone Firestone (which is also the halftime show sponsor) are among the advertisers that paid up to $2.7 million for each 30-second spot. Fox had 58 commercial slots available for the Feb. 3 game.