AT&T is connecting to a kids’ property to help it stand out with adult consumers.
The telecommunications giant will this evening sponsor a commercial-free airing of a new special starting Sesame Street character Elmo that will run across all the entertainment-focused TV networks operated by its WarnerMedia unit. “Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate” will follow popular figures Elmo, Grover and Abby Cadabby as they find new ways to play and learn together while people are staying at home during the current coronavirus pandemic. The show airs simultaneously at 7 p.m. this evening across HBO, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, and truTV, as well as PBS Kids 24/7.
While viewers will be told before and after the program of the AT&T sponsorship, the company will also run a commercial that depicts the ways it helps kids with distance-learning across many of WarnerMedia’s networks, says Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer of AT&T Business, in an interview. The ad will appear separately across many WarnerMedia networks, including CNN.
“This is really becoming a moment in time to show how we are supporting distance-learning education and our kids,” says Katibeh, “That’s at the heart of this.”
But the A&T campaign might also offer a playbook for advertisers who need to maintain connections with consumers despite the challenges of the current pandemic. While a host of marketers – particularly those in the travel and movie sectors – have pulled back significantly on commercial schedules in recent days, other industries need to maintain a presence.
AT&T’s rivals have not stayed silent. Both Verizon and Sprint are running frequent commercial messages about the durability and reliability of their communications services. Some of their ads even tout how their work helps families or essential workers. Ads from telecommunications advertisers across the nation’s top 25 TV networks were down just 9% between March 30 and April 5, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, compared to a massive 99% pull-back by travel and tourism advertisers and an 85% slump by movie studios in the same time period.
AT&T is thinking about advertising in a different fashion as consumers grapple with the effects of the pandemic, says Katibeh. “When you think about the word “ad,” it’s historical intent was to mean some sort of call to action,” he says. But at this moment commercials ought to communicate different sentiment. “It’s really about helping everyone understand that we are all in this together. We are connected together, and that’s the overarching theme you are going to see coming through.”
AT&T, he says, is “calibrating week by week” the commercials it releases. “We are thinking about what is the right message we need to bring.”
In a moment where the wrong ad message might anger or upset customers, several advertisers are also seeking out particular pieces of content to sponsor. Target Corp., for example, has agreed to sponsor movie nights on various TV properties owned by NBCUniversal and Walt Disney. A Target spokesman declined to comment when asked if the retailer had solicited such an opportunity from either media company.
The “Elmo” sponsorship marks one of the first times AT&T has utilized the media company it purchased for $85 billion in 2018 for such a large promotional purchase. The move might evoke comparisons to General Electric’s long ownership of NBCUniversal; the large U.S. conglomerate long placed the bulk of its TV ad-spend on NBCU properties, with the idea being that the company wanted to support a business it owned.
“This signature effort is the first time WarnerMedia’s entertainment and family brands will broadcast a cross-network experience,” says Joe Hogan, WarnerMedia’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “In working with AT&T on this sponsorship, the Sesame Street primetime special will be aired commercial-free, giving families a shared experience to laugh, play and learn together while staying safe at home.”