TO THE LIST of Hollywood ingenues making their debut at the Academy Awards on March 6, you can add this unlikely contender: Coca-Cola Blak.The new soft drink, a curious hybrid of Coke and coffee scheduled to hit grocery shelves this spring, will be unveiled in a 15-second TV spot in the Oscar pre-show on ABC. The spot wasn’t originally conceived as a send-up of the scene outside the Kodak Theater, but that’s how it’s likely to play. It shows the Coca-Cola Blak bottle on the red carpet as if it were, say, a leggy starlet in a spaghetti-strapped Tom Ford dress, surrounded by popping flashlights. Coke, which has watched Pepsi dominate Oscar night the last seven years, has snapped up more real estate on the telecast this year than most of the 15 advertisers who’ve paid record sums for the privilege of plugging their products during the ceremony (cost: $1.7 million per 30 seconds). Coke will air three minutes and 45 seconds worth of ads, which is more than GM, Miller or State Farm, all of which have bought multiple spots. That’s more airtime than even George Clooney is likely to get. Advertisers are nervous enough that the ratings this year will plunge lower than they did in 2003 when “Chicago” won best picture — only 33 million people watched that show, compared with, say, the 91 million who watched the Super Bowl earlier this month — that ABC was still selling its Oscar inventory as late as last month, one media buyer told me. Usually, it’s all booked months in advance. But regardless of ratings, the telecast offers advertisers certain advantages in a 1,000-channel, on-demand TV universe. Last year’s Oscarcast, according to ABC, was the year’s top-rated broadcast among adults 18-49 who earn more than $100,000 annually, “who graduated college, and who are in a professional, owner or managerial occupation.” (In other words, don’t expect to see a lot of ads featuring chimps, cavemen and women busting out of their tops.) THE OSCARCAST is virtually TiVo-proof. If you don’t watch it live, what’s the point? It’s also largely devoid of product placement, thanks to a series of restrictions the Academy imposes on ABC. There are no advertising logos permitted around the entrance to the Kodak Theater or onstage. It’s what advertisers call a “clean venue.” And there are no ads featuring either nominated or presenting talent. In other words, there will be no Nicole Kidman spots for Chanel No. 5. (There will, however, be an unusual two-minute American Express ad directed by and starring M. Night Shyamalan.) Movie ads are off-limits, too. In contrast to the Super Bowl, which has become a virtual trailer reel of coming attractions, ABC isn’t permitted to air any movie plugs during the telecast. The rationale for this, according to the Acad’s exec administrator, Ric Robertson, is to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest that might arise if, say, Universal swept the Oscars and also advertised several of its films on the telecast. “That the integrity of the vote is removed from any commercial interests of the Academy is a very important concept,” he said. Think of it as the Hollywood equivalent of the federal election law that prevents you from posting campaign signs within 200 feet of a polling place — a reasonable enough policy when you compare the Oscarcast with the Super Bowl, in which even the coin toss is brought to you by Cingular or Pepsi. ADVERTISING ON THE TELECAST has always been a sticky issue for the Academy. In 1955, Oldsmobile spent $350,000 to be the exclusive sponsor of the Academy Awards. Bob Hope was host that year, and when the Oldsmobile portion of the show ended, he said, “Good Night from Oldsmobile.” According to the New York Times, this was so confusing to station affiliates that 90% of them assumed the show was over and signed off. Two years later, Daily Variety editor Joe Schoenfeld published a front-page editorial railing against all the Oldsmobile plugs. On “TV sets across the nation,” he wrote, “Oldsmobile got the big payoff for a full year of Hollywood blood, sweat and tears.” Hollywood’s tolerance of advertising has eased up a bit in the past 50 years. Then again, marketers have also grown more sneaky. Remember Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s “Starsky & Hutch” routine a few years ago? It was probably far more effective than a 30-second spot for the movie, and it didn’t cost Warner Bros. a dime.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more