Two Fox television networks, reinforcing their brand image of brash risk-taking that sometimes steps over the line, are planning two clutter-busting initiatives that are sure to be controversial.
First, as part of a series of commercials that begin running this week to promote "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" on the Fox Sports Net cable network, the boxer Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, will be shown as if he were baby-sitting, singing a lullaby as he rocks the infant to sleep.
Then, as part of the show before the National Football League game on Sunday between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, Fox Sports, the sports unit of the Fox Broadcasting Company, will take so-called virtual advertising - images created by digital technology that only viewers can see - farther than it has ever gone in this country.
There will be three animated vignettes during the live pregame show in which images of Ford F-250 Super Duty trucks will seem to cavort and caper on and off the field, complete with imaginary doors, seats and rolls of steel bearing the "Built Ford Tough" slogan of Ford trucks.
In both instances, "the envelope is being pushed to see what consumers will tolerate without a backlash, as with what's going on on the Internet with pop-up and pop-under advertising," said Bob Williams, president at Burns Sports and Celebrities in Evanston, Ill., which helps match advertisers and athletes.
"Advertisers think we're more willing than we used to be to accept this," he added, "especially in sports, which in general has been pushing the boundaries" of acceptability.
For instance, athletes with problems on and off the field that once would have disqualified them from endorsement deals are now featured in ads, for products like Reebok and Pony shoes.
Both Fox efforts are "in keeping with the Fox tradition of being in your face," said Jim Andrews, editorial director at IEG Sponsorship Reports, a sports marketing newsletter published by IEG Inc. He said he thought the virtual advertising, arranged for Ford by its longtime agency, the Detroit office of J. Walter Thompson, would be less of a problem for Fox than the appearance of Mr. Tyson in the "Best Damn Sports Show Period" campaign.
The campaign, intended to be tongue in cheek, also includes far less provocative athletes like the football players Derek Fisher and Keyshawn Johnson, the baseball player Brian Jordan and the basketball player Jerry Stackhouse.
"I assume Fox will take a significant amount of flak from a lot of people who remember Mike Tyson, being portrayed as a baby sitter, is a convicted rapist," Mr. Williams said. "It's certainly guaranteed to get the commercials talked about."
Executives at Fox Sports Net and its agency, Cliff Freeman & Partners in New York, which specializes in sometimes shocking ads, say they want the campaign to be debated because that would help it gain the attention of distracted viewers. Also, the target audience of these ads - male sports fans ages 18 to 34 - often approve of irreverent marketing that may alienate or annoy older viewers.
"A lot of clients won't take chances, and their ads are invisible," said Dan Kelleher, an art director at Freeman who created the spots with Rob Carducci and Richard Bullock. "This will break through the clutter, and when you can do that, if it's controversial, it's O.K."
But all involved say they did not cast Mr. Tyson in the spot as a gimmick, knowing the inevitable outcry would result in additional publicity when the spot is withdrawn.
"We never know who will be offended out there, but we're not looking to offend anyone," said Neal Tiles, executive vice president at the Fox Sports Marketing Group, a part of the News Corporation; the group comprises the Fox Sports operation and Fox Sports Net.
The commercial featuring Mr. Tyson shows him baby-sitting for one of the show's hosts, John Kruk, incongruously singing the "Mockingbird" lullaby as he cradles an infant. The ad - meant to illustrate the campaign's theme that athletes will do anything to become guests on "The Best Damn Sports Show" - is "part and parcel of creating the mind-set among the younger-male demographic that `this is the network that speaks to me,' " Mr. Tiles said.
"We're by no means condoning or endorsing Tyson's actions in the past at all," he added. "He's trying to turn his life around and put the past behind him."
Mr. Tiles said that Mr. Tyson and the other athletes were paid only their expenses to appear in the spots.
Some critics of the commercial say they are not mollified by explanations. "I'm sure people will talk about it, but it's offensive, inappropriate and crosses the line," said Nova Lanktree, executive vice president for marketing at Lanktree Sports in Skokie, Ill., a marketing consulting company owned by CSMG Sports. Ms. Lanktree gasped when the commercial was described to her over the telephone.
She and the other sports marketing executives were, however, much less taken aback by the virtual advertising, which will extend into sports programming the use of digital images prevalent for many years in sports coverage. Those ads take the form of make-believe signs on walls and imaginary logos on fields and in boxing rings.
"There's a pretty high tolerance for it in sports," Mr. Andrews of the IEG Sponsorship Report said.
Even so, executives at the Fox Sports Television Group, Thompson and Princeton Video Image, the Lawrenceville, N.J., company providing the digital technology for the three 10-second virtual displays of the Ford trucks, say they are being careful to make sure the ads do not stand out to the point of being obtrusive or grating.
"We've tried to create some animations with a sense of humor that we hope people will look at in context and accept," said Carl Spresser, creative director at the Thompson Brand Entertainment Group at the Detroit office of Thompson, part of the WPP Group.
David Hill, chairman of the Fox Sports Television Group, said: "We always try and go the extra yard for an advertiser, but you always keep your fingers crossed every time you use any new technology. If it works for Ford, we will move forward and look for other opportunities to use it."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.