Donny Deutsch wants to take Madison Avenue down a tricky road.
On his new sitcom, “Donny!,” Deutsch, a former ad-agency executive who has since moved on to host and contribute to talk shows, will break from the action in a scene and start to hawk everything and anything from barbecue sauce to vodka to a vacuum cleaner. It’s a technique that’s so new it’s old – hosts in the earliest days of TV used to do ads during their programs – and the idea is one that has long been discussed in this era of disruption in TV advertising, when DVRs and streaming-video make avoiding traditional video commercials one of the easiest feats to accomplish.
“The more over-the-top selling it is, the better it was,” said Deutsch of his efforts during a recent conversation in his Manhattan residence. Among the advertisers he pitches are TracFone Wireless and Overstock.com. “I think it’s going to create a lot of conversation in the business.”
Deutsch, who plays a clueless daytime talk-show host on the program, ought to know. He has been stirring up chatter in the advertising industry for years. He transformed David Deutsch Associates, a small print boutique founded by his father, David, into a behemoth that won headlines by not being afraid to touch sacred cows. It was the Deutsch agency, for example, that in 1994 created the first TV ad to feature a same-sex couple on behalf of Ikea. And it was Donny Deutsch who presided over its growth with a brash attitude that sometimes played like braggadocio but also tended to worked. At just 43 years of age, he sold his agency to Interpublic Group in a deal valued at around $265 million.
On “Donny!,” slated to debut on NBCUniversal’s USA November 10, Deutsch intends to “break the fourth wall” by turning to viewers in the middle of scenes to spend 15 seconds or so talking up a product. He will do so once each half-hour program – six times in all, given the series’ initial run on the cable outlet. In one episode, Deutsch quickly turns from gabbing with a troika of his assistants to promoting the chipotle bourbon flavor of Hak’s BBQ Sauce. In another, he takes a few seconds while slipping into something more comfortable during a date with Christie Brinkley to talk up the virtues of Purity vodka.
“The audience starts to fall in love with advertisers that can have a little fun with themselves,” Deutsch explained. It’s a philosophy that has helped other programs, including NBC’s “30 Rock,” which granted in-show placement to sponsors like Verizon and Snapple, but typically with showrunner Tina Fey and writers lampooning their appearances.
Such ideas are “very, very important to our model,” said Dan Lovinger, executive VP for entertainment ad sales at NBCUniversal, at a time when more advertisers are calling for “custom” commercials with ties to the content which attracted viewers in the first place. Indeed, NBCU has helped tailor special ads for Walmart that echoed the themes of live broadcasts of “Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music,” and had the stars of USA comedy “Playing House” devise specific promotional messages for that program’s sponsors.
Deutsch’s eponymous character will also advertise Dyson vacuum cleaners and the comedy movie “Sisters” from NBCU’s Universal Pictures. Deutsch said he brought the idea to NBCU executives, and Lovinger said the former agency chief would often team up with the ad-sales department to get clients on board. A spokesman for Purity said Deutsch had social ties to one of the company’s senior executives.
TracFone liked the idea because the format allowed us to poke fun at the typical idea of a media integration and reach a more ad-aware, savvy audience,” said a company spokesman. Dyson declined to comment on its marketing plans and other sponsors did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Other TV outlets have devised similar stuff, as anyone who has seen a zombie-themed commercial from Hyundai or Microsoft during showings of “The Walking Dead” on AMC can tell you. With audiences eager to use new technology to skip past ads, finding ways to embed promotional messages in the shows themselves has become critical – those who cannot or will not offer such stuff risk missing out on the flow of ad dollars.
Even so, Deutsch and his network backers are walking along a tightrope. When viewers feel they are being shoved out of a story and into a commercial, backlash can ensue. CBS in 2012 devoted nearly a full minute of its drama “Hawaii Five-0” to characters talking about Subway sandwiches and weight loss in an aside that was seen as distracting. In 2009, two characters took a road trip on the freshman season of “90210,” but couldn’t keep themselves from touting the benefits of Dr Pepper in such a way that fans made fun of the episode.
Attitudes have changed quickly since those times, Deutsch said. Audiences have grown savvy about seeing breaking news, first-person accounts and advertising all blended together in social-media feeds, he suggested, and TV can become less restrictive as a result. He is “trying to push the ball forward” when it comes to blending commercials and TV content. “There is a fresh way to do it, and you just have to embrace it. This is entertainment. You can nod to it and walk right into it,” said Deutsch. That said, he said he realized the advertising can’t pop up smack dab in the middle of emotional scenes, and noted he would not spend too long on any single pitch.
Deutsch was confident in the idea from the start. When he brought a pilot to USA, he included fake pitches for Fritos, made by the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo, and Oscar Mayer, part of Kraft Foods. Because the series was being produced while TV’s annual “upfront” pitches for ad deals were underway, Deutsch said his team left spaces in different episodes where the customized in-show pitches could be included, and inserted them into the episodes about a month ago, after pacts with sponsors were finalized.
NBCUniversal worked to ensure the in-show ads on “Donny!” matched the tone of the show, said Lovinger. The producers of the ad-industrydrama “Mad Men” were very careful about how they placed sponsors’ products int oo that drama, he said, but the freewheeling nature of “Donny!” allowed for a more lax attitude. “It really ultimately comes down ot the tenor of the show,” said Lovinger. “What is the show about, and therefore what is the tolerance level?” The show’s adveritsing is “sold out” in the first season,said Lovinger. Ads from has automakers, consumer productrs companies and financial advertisers will be among those seen when the sitcom runs.
If “Donny!” gets a second-sesaon nod, said Deutsch, “the sky’s the limit” for his idea. He will have more time to sketch out opportunites for sponsors, rather than having to leave room to put them in at the end of the show’s production process.
By the way, vodka and BBQ sauce aren’t the only products getting a boost from “Donny!’ In at least two episodes, the programs of NBCUniversal get a little love as well. Deutsch’s character makes appearances on “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC program featuring Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and the fourth hour of “Today,” starring Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford.