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Behind the Preplanned Oscar Selfie: Samsung's Ad Strategy

Samsung Electronics Co. spent an estimated $20 million on ads to run during breaks in the Academy Awards broadcast on Sunday night. But Samsung may have got more promotional mileage from Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres during the show itself.

Ms. DeGeneres toyed with a white Samsung phone during the broadcast, including when she handed a Galaxy Note 3 to actor Bradley Cooper so he could take a "selfie" photo of himself and other stars including Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Lawrence surrounding the host.

While the stunt felt spontaneous, it wasn't entirely unplanned. As part of its sponsorship and ad pact for the Oscars with ABC, the TV network airing the show, Samsung and its media buying firm Starcom MediaVest negotiated to have its Galaxy smartphone integrated into the show, according to two people familiar with the matter. ABC is a unit of Walt Disney Co.

Samsung gave ABC smartphones to use during the broadcast and was promised its devices would get airtime, these people said. At least one of the product plugs was planned: during the "red carpet" preshow, ABC ran a clip of six aspiring young filmmakers touring Disney Studios. The group were seen in the video using Samsung devices.

The origin of the "selfie" shot was a little different. Ms. DeGeneres, in the days leading up to the broadcast, decided she wanted to take "selfies" during the show and ABC suggested she use a Samsung since it was a sponsor, another person familiar with the matter said.

During rehearsals Samsung executives trained Ms. DeGeneres on how to use the Samsung Galaxy, two people familiar with the matter said.

"It was a great plug for the Samsung brand," said Allen Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates, a branding firm owned by WPP PLC. "Ellen's selfie is going to be more impactful than their commercials. You can't buy that magic of going viral," he added.

Having products appear in a program—product placement—has been a part of the TV business since the early days of the medium.

But it has become a more popular marketing technique in recent years as ad-skipping via digital video recorders has prompted marketers to look for ways to break free of the confines of the commercial break.

Ad-skipping is far less common during an event like the Academy Awards, which most viewers are watching live. Even so, advertisers say, product placement combined with ad buys help viewers better remember the products being promoted.

At the same time, TV networks typically reserve such product placement for big spending advertisers, media buyers say. Samsung was one of the biggest sponsors of this year's Oscars broadcast, buying five minutes of commercial time.

While Samsung declined to comment on the financial details of its ad deal with ABC, ad tracker Kantar Media estimates that advertisers were paying roughly $1.8 million for 30 seconds worth of Oscar ad time this year.

That implies Samsung could have spent $18 million on ad time this year. By comparison, the company spent a total of $24 million advertising on the Oscars since 2009, according to Kantar.

The cost of the product placement was included in Samsung's overall package, said one person familiar with the situation.

Helping reinforce the value of the plug was Ms. DeGeneres' tweeting of the selfie. It was retweeted nearly 3 million times as of Monday afternoon. While the tweet didn't mention Samsung, the fact it was taken by a Samsung phone was clear on the TV screen at the time.

At one point Samsung was getting about 900 mentions a minute on social media, according to Kontera, a company that tracks content on social media sites.

Still, as the lines between entertainment and advertising continue to blur ad experts warn that these overly promotional gimmicks could turn off consumers.

So far, there has been few complaints about Samsung's Oscar plug. Kontera said that 23% of the online commentary around the "selfie" on social media has been positive and about 69% of the comments have been neutral. Only 8% of the comments were negative, the company added.

The Samsung stunt didn't come off without a hitch: many people were quick to note on Twitter that the Oscar host was also tweeting during the evening with rival Apple's iPhone.

Samsung declined to comment about Ms. DeGeneres' iPhone usage.

Samsung wasn't the only brand that got a big plug last night. Ms DeGeneres ordered pizza for some in the audience from Big Mama's and Papa's Pizzeria in Los Angeles.

The boxes carried a Coca-Cola logo, which didn't advertise during the program. Rival Pepsi was an Oscar advertiser.

"Big Mama's and Papa's Pizzeria getting a thank-you note tomorrow," read a tweet sent out last night from Wendy Clark, Coca-Cola's senior vice president of integrated marketing communications.


Suzanne Vranica, The Wall Street Journal. March 3, 2014

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