Advertisers Embrace Gory Shows Like ‘Walking Dead’

Marketers are no longer afraid of integration deals on edgy shows — if they follow a few simple rules

When the world is overrun with flesh-eating zombies, it’s nice to know your car won’t break down.

Yes, that was a nearly pristine kiwigreen Hyundai Tucson ferrying characters in this season of AMC’s smash post-apocalyptic zombie drama “The Walking Dead.” Viewers will never see the vehicle smeared with zombie blood. Nor will it ever break down. Why? Because Hyundai paid for the program’s gang of survivors to drive the car this season (and is negotiating for the next cycle). As part of the deal, it can never be used to crush or mangle the series’ famous shambling creatures and must always be presented in good working order.

(From the pages of the April 2 issue of Variety.)

In cobbling together such a deal, the auto sponsor is providing TV networks a template upon which to work as more mainstream TV dramas tackle carnage, violence and grit — and as advertisers try to harness the audience reach of these gory dramas while striving to keep their brand images clean. Once viewed as something to keep at arm’s length, edgy drama these days is one of the few things that attract a hard-to-reach demographic: men between the ages of 18 and 34.

The car “really is a trusted partner. It’s this getaway vehicle. It’s really there to help them get out of difficult situations,” explained David Matathia, director of advertising at Hyundai. But with every partnership come a few rules of the road: “It can’t be used as a tank. It can’t be used to roll over zombies,” he said.

These days, advertisers, like viewers, are showing their taste for blood. Edgy dramas are a key place to find the “young and affluent,” said Brent Poer, president of LiquidThread, a unit of ad buyer Starcom MediaVest Group that helps marketers weave their products into shows. “They tend to be, culturally, the people who are on top of trends first. It’s a really passionate audience. That’s why you want to be there.”

AMC has received many requests for product placement in the show, said Scott Collins, AMC’s exec VP of ad sales — even though the lack of electricity after the storyline’s apocalypse makes the idea challenging. Nonetheless, marketers would love to get an electronic device or mobile tablet into the hands of key characters. “They’re like, ‘Can’t you write a flashback scene from before the apocalypse?’ Uh, yeah, that’s not really authentic,” he recounted.

There are other ways to play with the undead. With LiquidThread’s assistance, Microsoft created two ads used just in breaks accompanying “The Walking Dead.” The spots took a humorous look at the people who play zombies in the series.

Elsewhere, ad support is building for NBC’s “Hannibal” (pictured above), according to a person familiar with the situation; the series is based on the flesh-eating psychiatrist made popular by author Thomas Harris. Marketers would also be hard-pressed to ignore Fox’s “The Following,” a grisly skein that is the closest thing to a hit for a new drama in the back half of this TV season. And Amazon recently announced it would develop a series version of the cult-favorite movie “Zombieland.”

When “The Walking Dead” debuted on AMC in the fall of 2010, Hyundai executives were immediately intrigued, Matathia said. Even in a short first arc — six episodes — the series “put up some really good numbers against key demographics.” Ad agency Initiative inquired about the possibility of a placement during season one, but was told nothing was available.

The dialogue remained open. As preparations for season two got into gear, producers saw a need for a car, and AMC reached out, said Dan Mintz, a vice president and director of national broadcast at Initiative. “The median age is so young on the show,” he said, estimating it to be in the 30s, and the series’ passionate fans talk about nearly everything on “Dead” via social media, ensuring Hyundai’s appearance gets traction.

As this sort of fare migrates from FX and HBO to broadcast TV, will advertisers continue to crawl over zombies as the zombies continue to crawl over their prey? So long as the shows use an element of the fantastic, most advertisers will consider the idea, said LiquidThread’s Poer. “They get more room with some of the violence and the gore because it’s a world no one lives in,” he said.

Meanwhile, the next season of “Walking Dead” will probably feature the Tucson in close proximity to flesh-eating — courtesy of Hyundai.

“I’m fairly confident we’ll be back,” Matathia said.

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