TV viewers feeling ad nauseam

Desperate networks assault public with blurbs

Newspaper came late on Monday? Don’t blame the delivery guy — finger “Chuck.”

As part of its expensive launch campaign last week, NBC wrapped ads promoting “Heroes,” “Journeyman” and “Chuck” around multiple sections of the Sept. 24 New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

Some Gotham customers got their paper late, while readers on both coasts expressed frustration at having to tear away the ads before reading the headlines. As the networks look for louder and more intrusive ways to get their message out, they also run the risk of turning off the audience they’re trying to attract.

The major networks spend $35 million to $50 million each year in launching their fall sked, a substantial chunk of their overall annual marketing budget. Given the sheer amount of noise competing for consumers’ attention — not to mention a low-rated summer that was virtually useless for marketing purposes — the nets say much of that push has to be intrusive in order to take hold with potential auds.

CBS, for example, stamped ads for its entire lineup on the price labels that supermarkets slap on sliced meats (a variation on last year’s stunt, in which the network printed messages on eggs).

Fox sent fake news trucks around the country to promote “Back to You.” The CW, which must make do with the smallest budget of the nets, hired street teams to pass out nail files for “Gossip Girl.”

“Everybody seems to be selling every piece of everything,” CBS Marketing Group prexy George Schweitzer says. “The baggage carousel, the bathroom door, the shower door in the health club, building ceilings. You can buy everything.

“I don’t think we really know how much is too much,” Schweitzer says. “Someone complained to me about ‘Cane’ ads all over buses, but that’s a good thing. At least they know about it. In today’s world, I don’t think we can make people sick of a message anymore.”

Most nets say their marketing spending is flat year-to-year (even spending leader ABC), which leads to some of the more creative and viral campaigns. The goal: to get people talking about the ad (and, as a result, its message), even if they’re slightly irritated.

And when it comes to the physical world of billboards, wraps, stunts and tchotchkes, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing, net execs say.

The Grand Central Shuttle connects two key stations on the New York City subway system (Grand Central with Times Square). NBC bought all the display advertising in both stations and on the subway cars — and wrapped pillars inside the stations with ads, many for “Bionic Woman.”

The Peacock web also paid newspaper sellers to shout, “Tonight, after ‘Heroes,’ watch ‘Journeyman’!” in their best “Extra, extra!” voices.

ABC garnered attention in September when it stuck ads for “Desperate Housewives” on the painted parking lot strips at several grocery stores.

People in urban centers accept in-your-face marketing as part of the “urban experience,” adds Campbell Mithun director of broadcast John Rash.

But ABC Entertainment marketing exec VP Mike Benson says his staff debates those boundaries all the time.

“You gotta question how far can you go, how much can you take over before the audience is annoyed with what you’ve done because you’ve gotten in the way of something they enjoy,” Benson says.

The exec points to a year or two ago, when some marketers sent automated ads to answering machines and voice mailboxes. That was seen as going too far, so it’s not generally used by the nets.

Not all of the marketing is necessarily seen as intrusive: ABC hired people to pass out flowers (another “Pushing Daisies” stunt) to pedestrians.

“What makes me proud is a lot of simple ideas out there I think are working,” Benson says. “I don’t know that every idea has to be based in high tech or be wildly creative. … We don’t want to get in the way of people’s experiences. We want to try to enhance those experiences.”

Then there are the clever marketing plans that can lead to unexpected inconveniences (Cartoon Network’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” camera stunt in Boston, perceived as a terrorist threat, which virtually shut down the city, being the most extreme example).

The Peacock’s newspaper wrap repped the first time the New York Times had allowed what’s called a “spadia wrap” of all four sections of the paper — and production problems led to papers arriving late in parts of the city.

NBC Agency prexy John Miller makes no apologies for the newspaper wrap — noting that retailers like Macy’s have done it in the past.

“You pretty much assure that everyone is going to see your ad,” he says.

Still, Miller was surprised that the newspaper wrap got more attention than other stunts, such as striking a deal with Clear Channel to rebrand some of its top-40 radio stations as “Chuck FM” for a day.

Whether or not it worked is an entirely different question: “Heroes” opened huge, but “Chuck” and “Journeyman” launched to so-so numbers. On the flip side, later in the week, “Bionic Woman” — the biggest recipient of NBC ad dollars — launched to bigger-than-expected numbers.

NBC’s newspaper wrap was a sign of the times, and the tip of the iceberg in a street and outdoor marketing blitz in New York and Los Angeles to help open premiere week. The campaigns, designed to create the feeling of ubiquity and yes, at least a little inconvenience.

In many cases, the messages are not even so much for potential viewers, but a way to send a message to the entertainment, advertising and financial communities (as well as their network competitors).

Says Miller: “We’re putting a stake in the ground and saying, ‘We’re NBC, and we’re back!’ ”

Meanwhile, the intrusiveness isn’t limited to outdoor. Viewers have voiced increased frustration with the amount of onscreen clutter, particularly inside shows. Bugs promoting upcoming shows now regularly pop up at the bottom of the screen, interrupting the action and distracting auds from what’s going on.

But again, net execs say it’s a necessary evil, as viewers now fast-forward through regular promos — and the in-show ads have proven to be effective (if not annoying).

“We try to do it with less intrusion, but it’s a fact of life now; it’s now a part of the TV landscape,” Schweitzer says.

Premiere week coincides with Ad Week in New York, which draws Mad Men types from all over the country. And indeed, some of the ads there are not so much geared to drive ratings as much as send a message.

“It was about hitting the ad community and hitting our competitors,” Miller says.

As media becomes more competitive, splintered and complex, the physical world remains comfortingly finite and easily filled with pitches. Has it gone too far?

“I don’t think we’ve gotten close to that point yet,” says Paul Levinson, chair of communications and media at Fordham U. “Shows almost have no chance unless you do everything you can beforehand to attract some kind of an audience.”

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