Attack of the Late-Night Ads: Madison Ave. Wants to Stay Up With Corden, Kimmel, Fallon and Others

Jimmy Fallon Stephen Colbert

Since seizing the reins of CBS’ “Late Show,” Stephen Colbert has held discussions with Bruce Springsteen and Joe Biden; joked around with Jon Stewart; and teased an animated President Trump. On a recent night in April, however, viewers may have been more surprised by a different sort of Colbert guest.

The visitor? Nigel, an animated spokes-owl (for lack of a better word) from Xyzal, the Sanofi-manufactured allergy medication. “We do this show for money,” Colbert explained to his viewers before his team flashed a Xyzal logo on the screen and Nigel took a seat next to him. “If allergy symptoms keep you up at night, Xyzal gives you relief, so you can sleep,” the owl said during the ensuing conversation. Sanofi was in recent weeks also able to get ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and TBS’ “Conan” to embed the product into their shows in similar fashion (A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the recent guest appearances).

Madison Avenue is eager to stay up late. With primetime ratings continuing to erode, advertisers see late-night programs from Jimmy Fallon, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Conan O’Brien and TV’s entire wee-hours coterie as an increasingly important place to catch the eye of younger consumers. The bonus: When the shows bake the ads into their segments, the bits get passed along via YouTube and social media, ensuring additional exposure.

“We are constantly getting pitched” to have Colbert and James Corden of “The Late Late Show” weave advertisers’ products into their programs, says Jo Ann Ross, president of sales for CBS.

CBS isn’t the only one. Ad-sales executives at NBCUniversal, ABC, Viacom and Time Warner’s Turner all report spikes in advertiser demand for late-night TV programming in recent years. So intense is the desire for the stuff that TV networks have in some cases sought whopping double-digit increases in pricing rates for the shows — more than they have been able to get for some of their best-known primetime offerings.

The advertiser frenzy marks a revival of sorts. After all, Johnny Carson wasn’t doing many full-on endorsements in NBC’s “Tonight” by the end of his tenure. And David Letterman and Craig Ferguson were known to resist the notion of in-show commercials.

Back in the middle of the previous decade, however, some of the networks reworked the idea of the late-show hosts as ersatz pitchmen — in no small part due to the threat of ad-skipping from DVRs. In 2007, GPS manufacturer Garmin Intl. landed a spot in Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” featuring then-announcer John Melendez. ABC began selling in-show commercials for Kimmel in 2008. Eventually, even Letterman began to allow select ad segments in his CBS program.

“Demand has absolutely grown over the last couple of years,” says Mark Marshall, who heads ad sales for NBCUniversal’s entertainment networks. Fallon’s tenure on “Tonight” has widened marketing possibilities, he adds. “It isn’t just an interview show any longer. It has become more of a full-on variety show, which brought new viewers to the daypart.”

As TV’s upfront market approaches, the networks are busy touting late-night to sponsors. Jordan Klepper, who is slated to launch an 11:30 p.m. program on Comedy Central this fall, is making the rounds of media-buying agencies to talk about potential partnerships, says Sean Moran, Viacom’s head of sales. ABC is talking up Kimmel’s recent Oscars performance and suggesting his association with the awards could broaden the range of ad categories that might work with him, says Deborah O’Connell, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Disney/ABC Television Group. Last year, Turner said that O’Brien’s staffers would be available to help advertisers create content that could be distributed across digital and social media.

The advertiser alliances are growing in scope and ambition. In February, BMW of North America struck a deal that called for “Tonight” viewers to see ad breaks consisting entirely of four segments of a short film produced by the automaker featuring Clive Owen and a BMW 540i xdrive. Amazon was instrumental in helping “Late Night With Seth Meyers” do a week of broadcasts last year from Washington, D.C. Corden managed to squeeze two different advertisers — Coca-Cola and McDonald’s — into a single segment of his “Carpool Karaoke” in June. Turner’s Adult Swim earlier this year crafted two animated spots for Progressive Insurance starting longtime spokescharacter Flo, says Dan Riess, executive vice president of content partnerships for Turner and co-head of its Turner Ignite unit.

Even NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” is getting in on the action, agreeing in very select instances to craft commercials for its sponsors.

Key to the deals is an unspoken vow not to let the commercial pitches overwhelm the programs. Turner has been protective of Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” says Riess, noting that the program is just a year old and only on once a week. Even so, AT&T last year sponsored a streaming-video view of pre-show activities.

At CBS’ “Late Late Show,” staffers are game to try many ideas, says executive producer Ben Winston, but are mindful of the importance of making sure viewers aren’t distracted from the program’s flow. “We try and do them in clever ways, rather than in ways that make James feel strange or ‘overpluggy,’” says Winston.

Many of the most successful executions are rooted in trying to figure out what’s best for the show, he says. “Late Late Show” features an on-stage bar that has been sponsored by both Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken. Winston cites that as an example of an organic integration. The show wanted the in-house tavern to help create a cool vibe, and the advertisers came later. McDonald’s “Karaoke” appearance grew from the fact that Corden and his guests in the segment occasionally stop at the fast-food chain while filming.

If the ads don’t feel like they belong on the program, they will not succeed, says Despina Legakis, director of branded content and media innovation at CBS Network Sales. Her advice to marketers eager to make a point around midnight? “The show will find the funny for you.”