To Slap ABC Family, The CW Borrowed Aggressive Ad Trick

Analysis: A sneaky but well-worn technique allows TV networks to try and raid viewers from rivals

Originals Bloodletting

CW’s decision this week to run ads on ABC Family telling TV viewers to stop watching “Pretty Little Liars” and turn instead to its own “The Originals” is bold, eyebrow-raising and even a little obnoxious. But it’s not unprecedented.

The broadcast netlet, home to “Arrow” and “Vampire Diaries,” has long been known for aggressive marketing maneuvers under Rick Hakins, exec veep of marketing and digital. In 2008, the network used the phrase “OMFG” in promos for a then-embryonic “Gossip Girl” (earning it the wrath of religious groups). Its latest effort is even more impolite.

CW purchased ads on cable and satellite distributors in the New York and Los Angeles markets slated to run on ABC Family. The promos make fun of “A,” the enigmatic character who is such an integral part of the popular drama, then suggest viewers turn to “CW” to watch its vampire series “The Originals.” A narrator urges: “Head over to the CW right now and see what everyone is tweeting about!” The network, owned by Time Warner and CBS, even used graphics telling viewers which local station featured CW programming.

The belligerent foray shows the timeless appeal of a really good marketing idea. In the world of TV promotion, it’s almost impossible to get a rival network to pick up an ad that disparages its programs. The alternative, a select few have discovered, is to purchase ad slots on local stations or cable and satellite systems and deliver the equivalent of a hard elbow to the ribs: Stop watching this and start watching us.

The technique was used to great effect by Time Warner’s TNT in 2004. When the cable outlet was running “Without A Trace” on Mondays, it bought up ads during NBC’s “E.R.,” which just happened to air opposite the current season of “Trace” on CBS on Thursday nights. “”If you’ve been watching ‘E.R.’ on Thursday nights,” the narrator told viewers, “you’ve missed the drama critics say is…Gripping. Stylish. Addictive.” And of course, available at that exact moment on CBS as the promo blared.

Top NBC executives were barely aware the spots were running on the network’s affiliates and even some of local stations the Peacock owned. The plan that had been orchestrated in part by Steve Koonin, who at the time was exec veep and chief operating officer of TNT and its sister outlet, TBS. Once The Wall Street Journal called to ask about the presence of the spots on NBC, the Peacock disclosed the promos were being pulled from all of its owned stations – even though they had been on the air for about four weeks.

Others have tested the method. In 2009, ABC snatched up ad inventory on various cable distributors – who usually get about two minutes per hour to sell to their own clients – on a range cable-news outlets, including CNN and MSNBC. Between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. – the exact time when ABC’s “Good Morning America” was one, the promos suggested viewers tune in to the “GMA” team of the time: Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts, Chris Cuomo and Sam Champion. Alan Ives, executive creative director and executive producer at ABC News, put the plan into place.

The TV networks are adopting a strategy that has been put to good use by a number of traditional advertisers. At some times, a marketer simply can’t tuck a commercial message on to a network due to pre-emption by a competitor or longstanding TV-advertising rules that keep TV outlets from placing rival commercials adjacent to each other.

The Super Bowl, for example, has long been off-limits to any brewer other than Anheuser Busch InBev, which pays handsomely to ensure it will be the only malt-liquor sponsor of the event. That hasn’t kept rivals such as Diageo and MillerCoors from hawking their wars during the broadcast of the game: In 2009, MillerCoors touted Miller High Life in one-second ads that ran on local stations across the U.S., and in 2003, Diageo ran local ads for its Smirnoff Ice during the pigskin classic.

Little wonder that Turner’s Koonin and the CW’s Haskins are familiar with the tactic. Koonin spent 14 years at Coca-Cola in marketing, while Haskins spent time at Procter & Gamble managing products including Crest toothpaste and the Vidal Sassoon hair-care line.