In Odd Move, American Express Uses ‘SNL’ Ad Parody To Boost Its Own Commercial

Live, from New York: an intriguing advertising opportunity.

American Express, in a rare display of thick skin by a blue-chip marketer, linked its advertising to a “Saturday Night Live” parody of its current ad campaign in hopes the spoof, which featured actor Chris Hemsworth, who hosted last week’s broadcast, would make its commercial more relevant to viewers. Most advertisers would choose to avoid being placed next to anything that pokes fun at their sales and promotional efforts, out of fear that it would render their message ineffective. American Express’ counterintuitive choice, however, illustrates how eager advertisers are to latch on to elements of the programs they sponsor and, hopefully, gain more traction among viewers increasingly able to ignore traditional TV commercials.

American Express already had plans for an ad featuring comic actress Mindy Kaling to air during Saturday’s broadcast, and out of courtesy, NBC gave the financial-services giant and its media-buying agency, Mindshare, a heads-up about plans for the satirical piece to air, according to two people familiar with the situation. NBC in turn was asked to move the American Express commercial as close to the spoof as possible, these people said.

NBC declined to make executives available for comment. A spokeswoman for Mindshare referred an inquiry to American Express. An American Express spokeswoman declined to comment.

The “SNL” spoof looked much like a recent series of American Express commercials in which celebrities like Kaling and Aretha Franklin and entrepreneurs like GoPro founder Nick Woodman discuss their life journeys in an attempt to show how consumers might emulate them.

Yet the “SNL” parody took some liberties with the message. “When I got to Hollywood, they said I’d never make it as an actor. They said I was too tall. Too blond. My muscles were too big,” Hemsworth said in narration. “It didn’t happen overnight for me. I bounced around Hollywood for days…” The unspoken message is that regular consumers have very little hope of achieving what the famous folks have done.

Advertisers are often adamant their commercials appear in environments that are as pristine as possible. The marketers want to stand out, and not worry that viewers will be distracted by an ad from a rival or some circumstance that makes people see the commercial in a negative light.

As a result, car advertisers often demand their commercials run in ad breaks that contain no pitches from rivals. TV networks work furiously to make sure products from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo never run in any kind of proximity to each other; the same holds true for cereals made by Kellogg and General Mills. When CBS ran two ads in its 2010 broadcast of Super Bowl XLIV that each featured the same creative theme of men walking around without pants, one of the advertisers involved – Levi’s Dockers – sought and received additional ad time to make up for the faux pas.

American Express’ decision to embrace the situation illustrates how important it has become for advertisers to tie themselves more closely to the content they support.  In a range of new efforts that have sprouted in recent seasons, marketers are tailoring their commercials to the programs in which they appear. Hyundai and Microsoft, for example, run commercials with zombie themes during episodes of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and NBC has crafted ads for Walmart that play off the songs in its recent broadcasts of live versions of “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”

It is unclear whether this sort of thing has happened in the past.  “Saturday Night Live” is best known for running parody ads for fake products that range from “Little Chocolate Donuts” cereal to a toy known as “Asian American Doll.” The fictional commercials often make real-life points about hucksterism or American cultural attitudes.

In recent years, however, “SNL” has also beefed up its efforts to skewer real pieces of Madison Avenue craftsmanship. Earlier this season, the show ran a series of fake ads spoofing actor Matthew McConaghey’s turn as a pitchman for Lincoln cars. In 2013, the show aired a fake ad for the Starbucks Verismo home-brewing appliance, suggesting it would get orders wrong.

American Express is not one of the biggest advertisers in “Saturday Night Live.” Indeed, the company spent just around $3.6 million on latenight weekend programming in the first nine months of 2014, according to Kantar Media. In comparison, T-Mobile spent around $2.96 million on just “SNL” in the third quarter of last year, while Verizon spent $2.88 million on the show in the same time period, Kantar said.

The stunt may be hard to duplicate. “Saturday Night Live” changes much of its content lineup as it moves from episode to episode. And besides, the show’s live nature means that sketches and pieces can be cut at any moment, depending on how long each segment of the show ultimately lasts.

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