Inside Comcast’s Plan to Feature Real-Time Olympic Footage in Commercials

Courtesy of Comcast

Many advertisers plan to interrupt the Olympics with their commercials. Comcast will interrupt its commercials with the Olympics.

The cable-and-entertainment giant has a group of ads ready to run in the Tokyo Olympics that, if all goes well, will include footage from this year’s Games that viewers may have seen just a few hours beforehand. Tonight, during NBC’s primetime rebroadcast of the opening ceremonies, Comcast will run a spot that is expected to include shots of Team USA entering the Olympics site in Tokyo when the event took place Friday morning.

Comcast has plenty of license to press the limits of what commercials can do. The company owns NBCUniversal, which has the rights to broadcast the Games and use Olympics clips and highlights in various ways. A team of staffers at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Conn., has been tasked with looking out for clips and moments that Comcast can incorporate into a series of other commercials set to run during the Games. One, slated to run Saturday in primetime, focuses on sportsmanship, and if possible, will incorporate a clip of an Olympic athlete being kind to a competitor.

“This makes the viewer feel like, ‘How did that just happen? I literally just watched that,’” Todd Arata, Comcast’s senior vice president of brand marketing, says in an interview. The idea, he adds, is to find a way for a commercial to “have a lasting impression” in a consumer’s Olympic experience. Comcast also has a set of seven other commercials at the ready featuring various U.S. Olympians, and hopes to add footage of their recent feats in the Games to the spots before they air.

Madison Avenue has been on a years-long quest to inject its best-known product — the good ol’ 30-second TV commercial — with a new burst of energy. Some advertisers have worked to incorporate “real-time” elements into their spots, hoping that a fresh clip of a newsy event or a bit of up-to-the-minute information will give the pitch an edge in the never-ending battle to win attention from potential customers.

Marketers have long tested ad concepts that carry real-time elements in the hopes the commercials will prove as winning as the programs in which they appear. In 2017, Mars Inc. showed a live ad for its Snickers candy bar featuring actor Adam Driver in the midst of Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LI. One year later, Kraft ran a Super Bowl commercial that utilized pictures and videos of families being together that were contributed in the hours before the Big Game broadcast. Target in 2016 sponsored a four-minute musical number by Gwen Stefani, complete with costume changes, that surfaced during a commercial break in CBS’ broadcast of the Grammys.

The challenge? Logistics.

Pre-taped ads still have a basic appeal. They are loaded into a network’s system and stand ready to perform whenever called to do so. Commercials with late additions need to be monitored by a wide array of teams, notes Caroline Grayson, group brand director at 72andSunny, the ad agency that is helping Comcast craft these new ads.

“This is a scary new world of advertising. You don’t even see the ad until just before it goes live,” she says. But the trade-off is that there’s new energy around the work: “I think it’s really exciting.”

In addition to the team seeking clips at NBC Sports, Comcast executives and 72andSunny staffers are also monitoring the process, along with employees at Spark Foundry, Comcast’s media-buying agency. “This is a tight-knit group. There is a series of status meetings about this in the run-up to the hit, with a group of individuals from all across the network who are super familiar with the kind of moments we are looking for,” explains Grayson. “There are a lot of different people who are playing a special role.”

Comcast has in recent years tried to find ways to stand out during big NBC events. In 2019, the company revived the beloved movie alien E.T. in a super-long ad that aired during NBC’s broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The spot raised eyebrows by featuring a storyline in which the creature returns to Earth to visit his now-grown friend Elliott, played by the same actor, Henry Thomas, who portrayed him in the famous 1982 movie. Last year, actor Steve Carell turned up as Santa Claus in an extra-long commercial vignette showing him using Comcast products to communicate with his team of helpers.

Comcast hopes the creative appearances during big TV events spur new conversations across digital and social media, says Arata. “You want to maximize a moment.”