How to hook highbrow audiences

Peabody honorees used smart marketing tactics

AMC’s marketing and press team knew they had a smart show on their hands when they landed “Mad Men,” but they faced turning off potential viewers with a series that could easily come across as a soapy period piece.

“We knew we couldn’t go a traditional route in marketing this show,” says AMC senior vice president of marketing Linda Schupack. “We felt we needed to be provocative, confident and bold.” What’s more, AMC saw “Mad Men” as a chance to rebrand the network with an intelligent, upscale series.

The move worked, attracting both audiences and accolades — including a Peabody Award — for the network. But intelligent TV can sometimes be the hardest to market, relying more on critics and creative positioning.

From “Mad Men” to fellow Peabody honorees “30 Rock,” “The Colbert Report” and “Dexter” (four of 35 programs honored by the panel this year), each of these winners offers a strong case study in how to attract auds to highbrow fare.

“We could have gone broad and lowest common denominator by putting the emphasis on the sex and scandals, but we pushed this as a writer-driven drama, which gave the series more credibility,” explains AMC vice president of publicity Theano Apostolou.

Interest was already high with “Sopranos” vet Matt Weiner spearheading the show, Schupack says: “We knew we could get the critics because the quality bar was so high. But the real key was appealing to this broader audience that might not normally tune in.”

The AMC team targeted nontraditional print sources such as Ad Age and Ad Week. They also appealed to fashion magazines like Women’s Wear Daily and even architectural outlets to exploit the show’s unique style.

Truthiness in advertising

Comedy Central scored an unexpected boost promoting Stephen Colbert’s “The Daily Show” spinoff when C-SPAN aired the comedian’s April 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner. But it was the attention his remarks generated on video-sharing outlets like YouTube that drove the net’s campaign.

“That clip got millions of hits and made Stephen a hot property,” says Peter Risafi, a senior brand marketing exec for Comedy Central. “With this, we moved into digital marketing for the show so we could leverage those clips that were going viral.”

Risafi’s team began posting broadcast clips, pushing search engine marketing and moving into social networking sites. To grab a politically savvy audience, they allowed clips to go out on such media-oriented blogs as Huffington Post and Gawker.

“If you want to appeal to younger, more educated audiences, you need to understand that the world is changing and that the more sites you are on, the better it is for your show,” Risafi says. “Every night, Stephen has a dialogue with college-age people between 18-34, and their world is a digital world.”

The first taste is free

Unlike small basic cable channels, Showtime has the luxury of pitching potentially risky shows to a more upscale pay audience, says Len Fogge, executive vice present of creative marketing.

The key for “Dexter,” he observes, was simply getting people to sample the show. So Showtime launched an aggressive campaign to put episodes online across numerous platforms for free.

“In any successful marketing campaign, it’s the number of positive impressions you make,” he says. “You never know which one puts you over the top: Is it the ad? Is that reinforced with a good review? Maybe. Or maybe you start reading about it in blogs, and that makes you think, ‘I’ve got to see this for myself.'”

Critical thinking

From the moment he saw “30 Rock,” NBC Universal TV Group chief marketing officer John Miller says he knew he needed a campaign that spoke to the intelligence and humor of the series.

“We used all the usual little tactics like sending out DVDs, creating online videos and a special page on YouTube,” Miller says. “But what really marked the show was the response from the critics. If the critics are calling this a quality show, then you know the awards will follow and viewer interest will be sparked.”


What: The 67th Annual Peabody Awards

When: Monday

Where: Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York

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