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As Netflix Rebuffs Commercials, Hulu Offers a Tighter Embrace

The very idea of ads popping up on Netflix – which currently runs none – recently spurred a national debate. Over at Hulu, meanwhile, the commercials are growing more sophisticated.

Hulu, the video-streaming service controlled jointly by Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Comcast, will launch its new space-adventure series “The First” with ads from SunTrust Bank that mirror the themes of the show. A commercial for SunTrust crafted by Hulu shows a young girl moving from playing at being an astronaut as a child to taking the first Mars spacewalk. “The First” centers on five astronauts, one of them played by Sean Penn, who take an early trip to Mars. The idea is to get Hulu viewers to think about being confident enough to try new things and work towards fulfilling big dreams – and remind them to start planning and saving for them.

“It will be the first thing that the viewers see prior to going into the show,” says Nicole Sabatini, vice president of integrated marketing at Hulu. And because the ad’s themes emulate those of the program it supports, she says, “it feels like part of the overall experience.”

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One reason why consumers have flocked to subscription video-on-demand services is that most don’t carry the typical set of umpteen commercial breaks so common in traditional TV. Indeed, a recent decision by Netflix to start flashing promos for its various programs in the seconds between the end of one selection and the start of another prompted much speculative hand-wringing over the notion that the home of “Orange Is The New Black”and “Stranger Things” might ultimately swap out the promos for actual commercials from outside advertisers.

Netflix executives have over the years remained adamant the service would do no such thing. Amazon Prime runs banner ads and video promos for various programs on its home pages. Both services in the past have allowed advertisers to weave products into scenes of some of the shows themselves.

Madison Avenue wants in. “It’s a growing audience, and I think it will continue to grow,” says Susan Somersille Johnson, SunTrust’s chief marketing officer. “The quality of the content has become exceptional.”

Since its launch in 2007, Hulu has run commercials (albeit fewer of them) while allowing subscribers to pay a higher price to watch the service without any. Many of the spots have been more creative than the typical 30-second spot. When the service first launched, users could even choose what type of ad they might like to watch – say, a car commercial or a movie trailer.

That is changing as Hulu expands into original content. With the launch of series such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Sarah Silverman’s “I Love You America,” Hulu has more opportunity to work with marketers to link custom commercials to the new shows. Indeed, Land Rover North America crafted a futuristic version of its flagship vehicle for use in “The First,.” The autonomous vehicle – of course! – was designed to look as if it were built in 2030, is driven by a character played by actress Natascha McElhone, and boasts an optional steering wheel that can retract into the dashboard. Hulu also crafted a bespoke ad for its new series “Castle Rock” for Hotels.com, which depicts a trip to a setting that looks much like one from the series, a horror anthology based on stories by author Stephen King.

SunTrust wanted to reach a national audience, but make sure its message resonated more than the typical video ad. The financial-services company chose to work with Hulu “not only for the visibility this expanding platform will get us, but the connection with the storyline in ‘The First’,” says Johnson.

Marrying the message with the program didn’t happen with a click of the remote. SunTrust and Hulu have been working together since early 2018 on finding the right series for the advertising, executives say. “We wanted to be very careful to have a storyline that connected with ours,” says Johnson. “These characters in ‘The First’ have what it takes to do something, to do the impossible,” which is the feeling the company wants its commercial to evoke.

SunTrust isn’t counting only on a trip to space to interest potential customers. The company will echo its Hulu ad with signs and promotions at its retail banks and with customers, and also at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, where it holds naming rights. The messages, Johnson says, will contain a nod to “The First.”

Expect Hulu to do more to weave commercials into the content over which it has more control. “We are starting to get more into that space,” says Hulu’s Sabatini. “As our Hulu originals become bigger, brands can become a bigger part.”

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