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Newest TV Spinoffs: 'Situ-mercials'

As a dramatic scene on a cable airing of "Law & Order: SVU" winds down, viewers sense a commercial right around the corner.

Moments later, there is a cut to a jail setting. A scruffy man wearing an orange jumpsuit is led into a prison cell, where his attorney finishes a call on his cellphone. "Well," the lawyer says, "I've got some fantastic news." The prisoner asks: "I'm outta here?" Not so fast. "No, it was Geico," says his counselor. "I just saved myself a bunch of money on my car insurance."

The Geico spot is part of a burgeoning class of ads that might be termed situational commercials, ones designed to play off the shows consumers are watching. "It makes sense to marry the creative environment to the media environment," says Bill Koenigsberg, president and chief executive of Horizon Media, an independent media-services firm that works for Berkshire Hathaway's Geico.

While Geico's prison ad is being shown during many television shows, Horizon has tried to insert it primarily during court shows and dramas, Mr. Koenigsberg says. Another Geico commercial, which looks like a soap opera, plays mainly in daytime TV, he adds.

The most obvious alternative to TV clutter, placing products within shows, is generating some backlash among viewers. Marketers and media buyers see the "situ-mercial" as a promising alternative. "I think it makes the message more effective," says Steve Bassett, group creative director of Interpublic Group's Martin Agency, which crafted Geico's ads.

One of Ford Motor's most intriguing 2003 efforts involved a situational ad that aired during this season's debut episode of the gritty drama "24" on News Corp.'s Fox. Ford bookended the otherwise commercial-free episode with two lengthy commercials created by WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson. The spots featured an action-packed vignette starring a character called "Mr. Bauer," although he wasn't played by Kiefer Sutherland, who portrays agent Jack Bauer on "24." The commercial also duplicated the program's hallmark method of showing action on a split screen.

Other marketers have also seized the moment. American International Group, an insurance and financial-services concern, has aired commercials specifically during the late moments of sporting events, including the Super Bowl and extra-inning baseball games. The ads, crafted by Omnicom Group's TPG, play on the tension of the contests.

This new style could nudge the spotlight away from advertising agencies and toward media-services firms, which devise the plans that determine where and how ads are placed. "The most creative part of any presentation these days is the media part," says Shelly Lazarus, chairman and chief executive of WPP's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

One of her top creative executives sees changes looming. "The business is moving to a more journalistic model," says Chris Wall, Ogilvy & Mather's co-chief creative head. Advertisers could spend less time devising and testing ideas -- sometimes a three- to six-month process -- and instead launch messages more quickly, he suggests.

Crafters of TV spots may embrace the method because other media platforms are doing so. Holiday Inn Hotels & Resorts, part of InterContinental Hotels Group, last year tucked a print ad created by Publicis Groupe's Fallon Worldwide into morning newspapers. The ad looked a lot like a breakfast menu, an effort to catch the eye of road warriors as they munched eggs or waffles. Meanwhile, Paul Meyer, president and chief executive of Clear Channel Communications' outdoor-advertising unit, envisions a day when McDonald's, for example, uses modern highway billboards that change messages at appropriate times to advertise breakfast, lunch and dinner to passing drivers.

Posted on aef.com: March 5, 2004


Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. March 2, 2004

Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.