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After Skewering Commercials For Decades, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Starts To Embrace Them

After creating fake ads for dubious products like Mom Jeans, Little Chocolate Donuts, the Bathroom Monkey and the CNN Pregnancy Test, “Saturday Night Live” is developing a stronger interest in real ones.

Broadway Video, the production company behind the venerable program, is seeking a sponsor or sponsors for activities related to the 40th season of the comedy showcase, which could give a marketer the opportunity to have its name associated with an exhibit related to the show, among other things. And “SNL” has in recent months allowed cast members like Cecily Strong and Kyle Mooney to appear in ad campaigns for Jeep and Sprint. These practices, say ad-agency executives familiar with the program, have been viewed warily by “SNL” creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels for years.

Does “SNL” see more commercial opportunities for a show that once boasted of its cast as “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players”?

“They have traditionally been very resistant,” said Brent Poer, president of North America operations for LiquidThread, an advertising company owned by Publicis Groupe that tries to weave advertisers into entertainment properties. He has reviewed a marketing brief from Broadway Video seeking potential sponsors for the “SNL” anniversary.

Now, Poer suggested, times are changing. More sponsors are seeking alliances with specific progams and networks rather than simply spraying 30-second commercials across dozens of TV outlets. The result, said Poer, may be “a little pressure”on show producers to experiment with new ideas.

To be sure, “Saturday Night Live” has accommodated advertisers in the recent past. Apple and Budweiser are among the companies that have sponsored the show’s first musical segment, and get a promotional message on screen at the end of the song in exchange for doing so.

Others have secured deeper alliances with the show. In 2009, “SNL” created three sketches based on a longrunning spoof of “MacGyver” called “MacGruber” that were actually commercials for Pepsi and appeared in ad breaks supporting a January “SNL” broadcast (one of them showed up in NBC’s broadcast a day later of Super Bowl XLIII). In that same year, “SNL” allowed Anheuser Busch InBev to purchase all the national ad time surrounding the program to hawk a brew called Bud Light Golden Wheat. In exchange, the beer-maker sponsored a series of never-before-aired comedy segments from the show’s rehearsals during its commercial breaks.

And “SNL” has allowed at least one member of its cast to appear in an ad campaign. David Spade, most famous, perhaps, for his snarky “Hollywood Minute” on the show’s “Weekend Update “ segment, appeared in ads for telephone service 1-800-COLLECT in the mid-1990s while still on the show. Chris Rock and Phil Hartman also did ads for the service, then owned by telecom giant MCI – but only did so after they left the show.

In the past, Michaels has seemed ambivalent about giving advertisers free rein with “SNL.” His willingness to do the deal with Pepsi in 2009 was spurred in part by the effects of a terrible recession. “These are perilous times,” Michaels told Ad Age that year, adding that “I’ll do whatever is necessary to support the network.”

An NBC spokeswoman for “Saturday Night Live” said executives from the show and Broadway Video were not available for comment.

There are reasons why Michaels tries to keep the program sacrosanct. Because the show regularly skewers advertisers and sundry political targets, the merest trespass of a paying sponsor onto “SNL’s” satirical playing ground might trigger viewer pushback. Making advertising too much a part of the show might also create the sense that “SNL” is not free to pursue targets as it sees fit.

“They try to stay very clean,” said Poer, the advertising executive.

“SNL’s” developing taste for ad alliances may be sparked by sponsorships crafted by other programs under Michaels’ aegis. At “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” for example, General Electric has sponsored a handful of segments in which Fallon greets young inventors –and examines their ideas. The now defunct “30 Rock,” created by Tina Fey and supervised by Michaels, made a name for itself by incorporating sponsors such as Snapple and Verizon Wireless into the show – and subsequently poking fun at them in the process.

New York ad agency Figliulo & Partners was eager to enlist Kyle Mooney, who joined “SNL” last fall as a featured player, to take part in its colorful campaign for Sprint. In a series of ads, Mooney plays one member of an offbeat family. The actor, said Mark Figliulo, the agency’s chief executive, was already known in improv-comedy circles but his role on “Saturday Night Live” served as an “added bonus” for the campaign. The agency has worked with Mooney’s management team to keep “SNL” informed about the direction of the Sprint work as well as anything that could require Mooney to change his appearance or take part in anything that might clash with the direction of the show. “We get the exposure from ‘SNL’ and we respect their guidelines,” said Robert Valdes, the agency’s head of production.

Strong’s participation in a Jeep commercial,which shows her using the rugged vehicle to help secure a brown-bear costume in time for a dress rehearsal of the show, was put together as part of a larger ad pact by NBC. Under the terms of the deal the network made with Jeep owner Chrysler, NBC ran special Jeep ads in select programs across its portfolio of networks that used talent from each of the shows.

In the earliest days of “SNL,” the show provided relatively unknown actors with their first and biggest exposure (there are of course, exceptions like Anthony Michael Hall, Michael McKean and Billy Crystal). With dozens of cable networks and streaming-video site all looking for content, however, personnel on the show today can gain some level of fame before breaking into its ranks – which means TV viewers may recognize the “SNL” cast from places other than the program.

Some of those places may be TV commercials. Beck Bennett, known for playing the freakish “Mr. Patterson” on “SNL,” notched the spotlight prior to landing the gig for interviewing children in a well-received campaign from AT&T.

ALSO: Comedy Maven Lorne Michaels Widens His Empire Beyond ‘SNL’

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