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Live Commercials Return to TV

As Garmin was working on its TV plan for the second quarter last year, the company issued a challenge for itself and its network partners to come up with new and creative ideas to get the GPS maker's message across. NBC sales and marketing presented a rather novel proposal in response. "To NBC's credit, they were like, 'What if we do a live commercial? If you guys are open to that, we'll try pitching that idea to The Tonight Show and NBC executives," Garmin media and sponsorship manager Steve Lovell recounts.

The idea was green lit, and last June a live commercial for Garmin ran on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in the form of a 45-second skit starring the show's announcer, John Melendez, as a doctor diagnosing men who refuse to ask for directions with an affliction called direction disorder, then prescribing them Garmin GPS devices as a cure.

There was a lot of buzz around the effort. Leno even talked up the live commercial on his show in the days before it aired.

Leno isn't the only star hot on the concept of live commercials. ABC recently told Adweek that late-night host Jimmy Kimmel will start doing one live 60-second commercial during each episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, beginning as early as mid-May.

"He's embracing them. They're not a joke for him," Doug Hochstadt, ABC vp, late-night sales, says of Kimmel. "He sees the potential for growth both revenue-wise and as a constructive tool for the late-night landscape."

ABC's Kimmel news comes on the heels of a mini-revival of the live commercial that began last year with Garmin's foray into the arena. Miller Chill and Toyota subsequently tested the tactic, one that was commonplace back in the early days of television, when much of the programming was live.

Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson did live commercials, and they were seen on the daytime soaps, too. But live commercials died out in the 1970s when shows became pre-recorded and the single sponsor gave way to multiple advertisers.

Like the live commercials from back in the day, the recent spate relies on the TV personalities associated with the various shows, like Kimmel. Miller Chill was promoted on NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien in August with a spoof of Japanese commercials that had the show's drummer, Max Weinberg, enjoying the brew with two bikini-clad girls. Ellen DeGeneres made a pitch for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid last November during her syndicated The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres, who demonstrated the vehicle's features, including a second row of fold-down seats, went as far as to lay atop the vehicle and encourage her viewers to buy it.

Although live commercials mean additional revenue for the shows and networks, the main reason advertisers are interested in them is obvious: The spots are ingrained into the fabric of a show, and therefore DVR-proof. Furthermore, Shari Post, NBC vp, daytime and late-night sales, maintains that because live commercials are crafted to fit in with the tone and feel of the programs, they can make a greater impact than traditional spots. Post references IAG Research that "shows live commercials tend to do better than straight ads in terms of brand recall and likability."

Specifically, IAG Research, a syndicated research company (which, like Adweek, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.) that measures the effectiveness of television advertising and product placement as well as viewer engagement with TV, found that the live Garmin commercial on The Tonight Show was recalled significantly better by viewers than traditional Garmin ads, with brand recall rated 76 percent higher. Garmin's live commercial also scored significantly higher in likability, which is the percentage of viewers remembering and liking an ad. In this case, the live commercial scored 93 percent higher.

Additionally, the traditional Garmin ad that aired during the episode of The Tonight Show also featuring Garmin's live commercial benefited from the proximity, achieving a 47 percent higher brand recall, a 57 percent higher message recall and a 100 percent higher likability rating than its airings elsewhere.

Garmin ran the traditional spot in the commercial break immediately following execution of the live commercial to deliver "a one-two punch," Lovell says, maintaining that it reinforced Garmin's messaging to do so.

Thematically, the traditional Garmin spot tied in well with the live commercial, playing on men's inability to ask for directions and centering on a man and a woman in a car bickering about being lost. "I'm not lost, you're lost," the obviously lost man insists.

Given the IAG Research results, which were "off the charts" in Lovell's estimation, Garmin has decided to do another live commercial on The Tonight Show. It is scheduled to air sometime in May.

Miller Chill was also pleased with the results of the live commercial it ran during Late Night to promote the launch of the new brew. Miller spokesman Julian Green cites IAG Research data that found the Miller Chill live commercial had a 77 percent higher likability rating than traditional Miller spots.

Like Garmin, Miller also ran a traditional spot to accompany the live commercial, and that also tested well, Green notes.

As for how live commercials are put together, the creative process differs depending on the advertiser and the show. In the case of Toyota, many entities were involved. In addition to the head writer from The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Toyota's brand integration company, BrandArc, and creatives from the automaker's agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, are all credited with having worked on the creative.

Garmin's process was a bit more streamlined in that it involved the company's in-house marketing team and The Tonight Show. Lovell explains that Garmin presented ideas to TheTonight Show writing staff, which selected the ones that would work best within the show. Garmin's in-house creative director, Brad Gandon, then wrote a script based on the best concept, although Lovell notes it was written in collaboration with the show. The goal was to produce a live commercial that would emphasize the convenience, simplicity and stress-free qualities of Garmin navigation while dovetailing with the tone of The Tonight Show.

Tonight Show writers are going to take a crack at scripting the upcoming Garmin commercial themselves, Lovell reports, working off a brief that instructs them to convey in a witty way that Garmin's Nuvi 780 is the smart choice when it comes to navigation devices.

Miller Chill's creative approach was similar to Garmin's, with the company's in-house marketing staff collaborating with writers from Late Night. Working with a show's writers on a live commercial is essential, according to Green, who says that Late Night writers possess an innate knowledge of what the audience has come to know and like, "and that helped drive the likability of this ad."

Advertisers shouldn't expect to own the live commercials they are purchasing, by the way. NBC, for example, reports that the shows retain the rights to the material.

As far as pricing, Post says NBC is keeping live commercials "a limited opportunity, so there is certainly a premium associated with it" when compared to buying a traditional commercial time slot. (Starcom handled the Miller Chill/Late Night buy; ZenithOptimedia did the Toyota/Ellen buy; and Garmin directly negotiated its deal for placement on The Tonight Show.)

ABC will sell the live commercials on Jimmy Kimmel Live! as part of a package deal in tandem with standard commercial airtime and integrations. "We're not selling one to the exclusion of the other two," Hochstadt stresses. "We're trying to sell all three together."

But are advertisers interested enough for live commercials to become a trend? And are all the networks going to jump on the bandwagon? Realistically, there are only so many outlets for live commercials. Aside from the late-night and talk-show genres, not many shows are produced live or live-to-tape.

Meanwhile, calls to major media agencies revealed such a lack of knowledge about the live-commercial format that media buyers and planners didn't even feel capable of commenting on the subject, and neither Fox nor CBS had any live commercials in the works.

In fact, The Late Show With David Letterman, which is perhaps CBS' best venue for live commercials, is not open to doing them. "It's not even an option. Trust me, we've broached the situation and talked extensively with CBS about it," Garmin's Lovell says. "But since Dave owns his production company, he calls more of the shots over there."

Although NBC and its shows are in the live commercials game, Post doesn't predict a proliferation of live commercials on the network's airwaves. "There has been a ton of interest [from advertisers], but it doesn't work for everybody," Post says. "You have to make sure that as you go down this road, everybody knows what they're in for and that it works for all parties."

Over at ABC, Hochstadt isn't concerned about inundating Jimmy Kimmel Live! viewers with too many commercial messages. "Every late-night show and every television show is a work in progress all the time," Hochstadt says. "So, if it is overkill, we'll stop."

Offering the perspective of an advertiser, Garmin's Lovell says that he still views the traditional 30-second spot as "the crux of any campaign."

"But will we continue to do more live commercials? I hope so," Lovell adds. "Will we do them on every network? I don't know. But we will continue to look for ways to push the envelope."


Christine Champagne, ADWEEK. April 21, 2008

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