Susan Lucci's Erica Kane has battled kidnappers, posed as a nun, been married nine times, and stared down a grizzly bear in her rise from beauty queen to evil executive on the long-running ABC soap opera "All My Children." Now she will face her biggest threat -- Revlon.
The plot sounds tailor-made for an advertiser -- and it was. On the show, the cunning Erica runs the cosmetics company Enchantment, and, in a story line that starts Monday, Revlon, her biggest competitor, tries to hire away Greenlee Smythe, one of her top employees. But Erica tricks Revlon by sending her estranged and naive daughter, Kendall, to infiltrate her rival and become a corporate spy. And that's just the beginning.
The show's staff conceived the idea and took it to Revlon Inc., which jumped on board. In return for becoming a major plot line for three months on one of TV's most-watched soaps, Revlon agreed to spend several million dollars in advertising on the show -- and put up with being called "vultures" by Erica.
But Revlon doesn't mind the name-calling: Like other advertisers, it's looking for new ways to get its message across. Meanwhile, TV networks are trying to find new ways to generate revenue in a tough ad market, and soaps are eager to boost ratings, which have dropped 30% over the past decade, with much of the decline coming among women aged 18-34, a coveted target for advertisers like Revlon.
"Daytime is no different than any other business," says Angela Shapiro, president of ABC Daytime. While ABC's soaps are "incredibly profitable" and make "serious dollars" for the network's parent, Walt Disney Co., Ms. Shapiro acknowledges that the struggle to increase audience means "none of us can look at what we do as business as usual." Advertisers, she adds, are equally concerned about getting lost in the growing clutter of commercials.
Although the Revlon plot twist sounds like an idea that was cooked up by sales executives at both companies, Ms. Shapiro swears it was the brainchild of her writing staff. The plot was already in the works, and "we thought it would be a great idea to write in Revlon," says Ms. Shapiro, adding that "it lends a little bit of reality to the story." Ms. Lucci agrees. "I welcome Revlon's place in our storyline. It's an incredibly recognizable, long-time American brand," the actress says.
In some ways, the Revlon deal is a throwback to the early days of television, when advertisers financed shows in return for advertising exclusivity. In some cases, advertisers paid production costs, and they even developed some of the shows, including NBC's "Colgate Theatre" and "Texaco Star Theater." The practice had mostly stopped by the 1960s, but it resurfaced as networks and studios started looking for creative ways to cover rising programming costs.
But the Revlon-ABC arrangement is one of the biggest tie-ins to the story line of a TV show to date. If the trend continues, questions could be raised about artistic integrity. Next week's episode of the ABC comedy "My Wife and Kids" features a plot centered around the theatrical re-release of the movie "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." Vivendi Universal SA's movie studio, which owns the movie, made a big commercial buy on ABC.
Some hard-core soap fans are concerned about the plot placement. "Too bad 'All My Children' isn't using a more high-end company like Chanel," jokes Victoria Rapoport, a 37-year-old entrepreneur and regular watcher from McLean, Va., but she also warns the producers not to "make it sound like a commercial all the time."
Revlon doesn't think that will be the case. "It's just a fun idea," a Revlon spokeswoman says. That said, Revlon does have the right to review stories and ask for changes if there is anything that offends the company's sensibilities.
The New York cosmetics company has been going through a corporate soap opera of its own. For two years Revlon's patriarch, Chairman Ronald Perelman, has watched the company lose money, sales and market share to competitors L'Oreal SA and Procter & Gamble Co. And ad agencies and executives have come and gone more swiftly than Erica Kane's husbands. In late January, Revlon fired its outside advertising agency, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, just two weeks after launching a new ad campaign it created, ending a rocky 11-month relationship. Mr. Perelman's two top executives, who had praised the ads just weeks earlier, soon left the company. Mr. Perelman handed Revlon's advertising responsibility to Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, which made the ABC deal.
In recent years, Revlon's marketing strategies have flip-flopped. It dropped Cindy Crawford in late 2000, switching to a relatively celebrity-free campaign last spring with the slogan "It's Fabulous Being a Woman." In January it dropped that pitch and switched its tagline to "Be Unforgettable," an echo of Revlon's famous tagline from 1985 to 1993, "The most unforgettable women in the world wear Revlon." The celebrities, including actress Julianne Moore and model-actress James King, also returned, and Revlon shot a new TV spot with Halle Berry, who appeared in past Revlon advertising. The company also used Mr. Perelman's wife, actress Ellen Barkin, to do voiceovers in ads.
Being featured on "All My Children" gives "the company a little more celebrity status. The people who watch that program are Revlon customers," says Suzanne Grayson, who worked at Revlon in the 1970s and is now president of Grayson Associates, a cosmetics marketing consultancy. Any opportunity to differentiate its brand is critical for a cosmetics company like Revlon, she adds, noting that makeup brands and their advertising all tend to look alike.
And wait -- there's another plot twist. In real life, Susan Lucci sells her own line of skin and hair-care products and perfumes on her Web site and the Home Shopping Network. And guess what: The line isn't called "Enchantment."
Joe Flint and Emily Nelson, The Wall Street Journal. March 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.