After Decades of Crafting Fake Ads, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Plans Real Spots for Verizon, Apple

Anyone who watches “Saturday Night Live” on NBC knows the late-night program’s antics stop when the show goes to a commercial break. In at least one coming “SNL” broadcast, that won’t be the case.

Viewers who stick around for ads that could run as early as the April 8th or the April 15th broadcast of NBC’s late-night institution will glimpse a spot for Verizon written by “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost and featuring cast member Kenan Thompson. The bespoke pitch is part of an ongoing effort by NBC and executive producer Lorne Michaels’ hardworking crew of satirists to make the show more compelling to watch live, rather than via clips the next morning.

“Everyone is struggling now in a world where there is so much media,” Michaels told Variety in an interview. “We are all competing for sponsors, and everything is being reinvented. ‘SNL’ has been reinventing itself from season two.”

Saturday Night Live” is having what may be its most talked-about season since it first came on the air in the fall of 1975, owing to the show’s ongoing lampoon of President Trump and his administration, breakout performances by cast members like Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett and a recurring, headline-making turn by actor Alec Baldwin as POTUS himself. But NBC’s move to make the show more appealing to advertisers comes as Madison Avenue is working more intensely to drape late-night TV in commercial messages.

“Comedy is a big force in the culture, and I don’t think there’s a lot of over thinking about doing commercials as there was in the late ’60s and early 70s,” Michaels said. “When I grew up, it was like Jack Benny for Jell-O or Bob Hope for Chrysler or Texaco Star Theatre.”

Much of that sort of thing has surfaced in wee-hours TV as of late. Amazon sponsored a week-long trip that NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” took to Washington, D.C., last year. CBS’ “Late Late Show” managed to package both Coca-Cola and McDonald’s into a single segment of host James Corden’s signature “Carpool Karaoke” segment. Jimmy Fallon has worked General Electric and Ford into segments on his “Tonight Show.” And Apple hawked its new streaming-music service with a bottom-of-the-screen banner during a performance by Ryan Adams on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” “SNL” cast member Cecily Strong appeared in a 2014 commercial for Jeep that showed her using the car to prepare a sketch on her show, as part of a broader ad pact with NBCUniversal.

Apple has struck a deal with NBCUniversal to have “Saturday Night Live” create commercial content slated to appear in a few weeks’ time. The show’s work for the large consumer-electronics company will look different than its Verizon efforts, according to two people familiar with the situation.  Apple did not respond to queries seeking comment.

“Many brands want to be part of the cultural conversation,” and late-night shows that explore and lampoon the headlines make the task easy to accomplish, said Shannon Pruitt, president of The Story Lab, an ad agency owned by Dentsu Aegis that tries to weave advertisers into programming. When the shows work with an advertiser, she said, “they really go all in, and they make it their own.”

The process can be tricky. Give an advertiser too much of a spotlight, and the show veers away from its main goal. And yet, advertiser support can help boost production quality. “I think that it’s terrain that everyone is trying to figure out,” Samantha Bee told Variety last year, a few weeks after streaming pre-show activity for her TBS program, “Full Frontal,” on Facebook in an effort sponsored by AT&T. “It would have to feel awfully organic to us, for sure. Otherwise, we would resist it strenuously.”

Advertisers have been increasing their focus on late-night for years. For the past three seasons, ad-rate increases at late-night programs have been among the steepest on TV. “What we noticed at that hour once Jimmy Fallon took over ‘The Tonight Show‘ is that the numbers exploded,” said Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal. “When you really dig down and look at the audiences, they are younger. They are more upscale. They have really become quite a surrogate for primetime.”

The cost of a 30-second spot in “Saturday Night Live,” which is enjoying its highest-rated season in more than two decades, soared 43.5% in February, to $110,000, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad expenditures. In the year-earlier period, the price stood at $76,900 . The show captures around $115 million in advertising each year, according to Kantar Media.

“SNL’s” politically charged comedy is generating tons of notice this season. “We wanted to make sure we got it right,” Michaels said. “We are doing what we always do, but the difference is that everyone is paying attention,” he added.

Marketers see ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, CBS’ Stephen Colbert and the rest as good conduits for younger viewers, who have become more difficult to attract with scripted dramas and comedies (where inserting a pitch can be difficult if the show’s storyline doesn’t lend itself to the product in question). And this new generation of late-night hosts isn’t as finicky about working with sponsors as previous kingpins might have been. David Letterman, for one, was known to be less than eager about weaving sponsors into his CBS program.

Teaming up with “Saturday Night Live” takes stick-to-itiveness. Michaels acknowledged that he moved very deliberately in considering how to work with sponsors. “Linda has a very welcoming attitude toward advertisers, and I am less welcoming in the sense that the integrity of the show is really all that matters to me,” he said. He does not think ads should appear during program time. “SNL” episodes typically contain several satirical commercials as well as references to actual brands. The show’s March 12 broadcast, for example, nodded to Olive Garden and Subway. “You can’t make fun of it, and be with it” simultaneously, Michaels explained. “But we have managed to find a model we all think works, and we will see.” Both Michaels and Yaccarino said they expect “SNL” to continue working with advertisers in unique ways.

“SNL” producers agreed to test making commercials after Michaels approached NBCUniversal’s ad-sales staff last year with an interesting request: Could NBC cut some of the ads in the show so as to make the linear viewing experience more pleasant?

“I compared where we were in the ’70s in terms of commercial load to where we were last year. I just thought we were at a point where we were making it harder and harder to see the show live,” Michaels said. “People can DVR and scroll through the commercials and watch it the next morning, but we want them to watch it as an event show. And in exchange for losing three minutes of commercials, which makes the show go much faster, we sort of made an agreement that we would be open to working with advertisers.”

Media buyers and ad executives say “SNL” producers worked methodically, even mulling the types of products and brands they thought would be appropriate for the show. Last summer, as TV’s “upfront” ad-sales market wound down, buyers indicated NBC was offering everything from the chance to work with the show’s cast and writers to the prospect of tapping former “SNL” stars to reprise favorite characters from years past. There was chatter about the show doing as many as five or six different ads this season. But Yaccarino cautioned that “SNL” would not be producing ads en masse. “You can’t put something like this into a factory and churn it out,” she said. “The art takes a while.”

State Farm is one of “SNL’s” biggest sponsors, and has run commercials featuring former cast members Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey reviving their “Hans and Franz” characters. But Edward Gold, State Farm’s advertising director, said in an interview last year while exploring the “SNL” offer that some marketers might be cautious. “You are absolutely giving up some control of your brand when you are working with these guys, because they are comedians, and they believe they know what works best in their show,” Gold said.

Verizon executives were on hand when the “SNL” crew shot the company’s ad, Michaels said. “It was not our goal to do something they would not like, but it had to be funny, or at least in the same tone of what we do,” he said. Verizon was not able to make an executive available for comment, but the advertiser  achieved memorable results in another Michaels-produced NBC show. In a 2006 episode of “30 Rock,” lead character Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey — as part of a paid placement — talked about how much she loved products made by Verizon Wireless. She then turned to the camera and said, “Can we have our money now?”

This will not mark the first time “Saturday Night Live” has dipped a toe in these waters. During the program’s first season, Michaels recalled, the show ran live ads for Polaroid cameras during certain commercial breaks. Candice Bergen, an early host, was a spokeswoman for the camera company. “The big complaint was that if I put them in the middle of commercial breaks, they had to watch the commercials,” he said. “We didn’t want to stop the show to do it.” Chevy Chase was among the cast members who took part.

And “SNL” tested the idea again in 2009, when the show created three sketches based on a long-running spoof of “MacGyver” called “MacGruber” that were actually commercials for Pepsi. The spots appeared in ad breaks supporting a January “SNL” broadcast, and 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 commercial breaks.

More cast members seem to be turning up in ads as well. Leslie Jones has appeared in an ad for Allstate. McKinnon did a series of ads for Ford. Bobby Moynihan recently showed up in a spot for Pizza Hut. And Michael Che has accompanied Fey in an American Express commercial.

When David Spade did an ad for 1-800-COLLECT in the mid-1990s while still on “SNL,” it was surprising. These days, commercials with “SNL” talent seem more commonplace. “I don’t like it, but if someone is going to be well paid and it’s not next to us in the show, then I’m OK,” said Michaels.

At the heart of things, Michaels said, is a desire to find more ways to keep broadcast TV working and drawing a sizable audience at a time when consumers can find video entertainment on a number of different screens.

“The audience has gotten smaller for commercial television, broadcast television, but I am, as you know, a huge fan of and believe deeply in broadcast television. We are on in all 50 states, and without us, a lot of people would not see this kind of material,” Michaels said. “That thing that pays for it are commercials, and I don’t really see it as any kind of a moral crisis.” On a coming Saturday night, viewers are more likely to be surprised and curious than outraged.

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