Commentary

Brandtique: Audi, "The Closer"

Could Audi's sponsorship of TNT's second-season premiere of "The Closer" be the dominant television ad model in, say, 2025? Very possibly.

C-suite executives at media giants like Disney and News Corp. have recently changed their tune. Instead of downplaying the ad-skipping threat posed by DVRs, they are now acknowledging the inevitable and talking about the need to develop DVR-proof ad models.

The premiere of "The Closer" on June 12 offers a template. Audi paid for the episode to be commercial-free, and sprinkled in marketing messages throughout without resorting to 30-second spots.

Audi began the hour with an introductory message from its CEO Johan de Nysschen, then used the in-program promotional messages on the screen's "lower-third" to inform viewers that the carmaker was the reason for the ad-free episode--and even dropped in a 20-second product placement mid-show (evaluated and ranked via research firm iTVX as one of the five most effective product placements last week).

For the most part, it was a clever marketing tactic, and unquestionably a way to circumvent the DVR FF button. No matter what kind of trick viewers employ, the lower-third messages and the product placement are inescapable.

Use of the lower-third--normally reserved for networks to promote upcoming programming--as an advertising billboard should be particularly intriguing to marketers. When done in a manner that's decidedly low-key, a marketer can build goodwill. And it stands to reason that by showing respect for the viewer experience, the message may even pack a bigger punch. Advertiser sensitivity goes a long way in a world rife with in-your-face hard sells. Four times during "The Closer's" season opener, the Audi message "Presented Commercial Free By Audi" was posted next to the company's logo on the bottom of the screen, and done tastefully.

The other elements of the Audi sponsorship were more questionable in their effectiveness. The 20-second opener, where de Nysschen expressed Audi's delight in bringing viewers the show commercial-free, felt like an infomercial. And at a time when public faith in corporate chieftains is fading, it seems ill-advised to focus on the CEO.

In de Nysschen's case, that seems particularly so. He didn't exactly light up the screen. Besides lacking charisma, his message was rather trite and stilted. "Audi strives for excellence when we design our premium automobiles," de Nysschen said. "And we are pleased to be associated with TNT and the quality original programming you're about to watch. Audi is proud to present the commercial-free season premiere of "The Closer," only on TNT."

Besides the the banal message, de Nysschen's tone called to mind more a quarterly earnings conference call than the excitement of the new season of a terrific drama. For a marketer that drew such rave reviews for its "Art of the Heist" campaign, it's a wonder that Audi chose to go with CEO-speak. Could it be that in order to get de Nysschen to sign off on the expensive sponsorship, the Audi marketing department told him the plan was for him to get the marquee face time?

Although less noticeable, Audi's product placement in the episode didn't seem particularly inventive, and may have been a bit of marketing overkill. The appearance of an Audi convertible was hardly organic to the story line. A pair of detectives were sent to Vegas to apprehend a suspect, and while looking for him in a casino, came across the car on display. One of the detectives walked around it, even kicked the tires--then nodded his head in approval. Not exactly law enforcement in hot pursuit.

The 20-second scene included a close-up of the front of the vehicle and the Audi insignia. But with Audi's logo repeatedly popping up in the lower-third throughout the show, it seems a bit excessive to also employ product placement. Marrying direct marketing messages with attempts at subliminal ones runs the risk of turning viewers off.

However, despite some possible missteps in execution, the Audi sponsorship (which amounted to about 60 seconds of exposure when the opening message, lower-third time, and product placement presence are added up) overall seems to be in line with the future of television advertising. Besides the DVR-proof elements, research from PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that viewers will acquiesce to advertising in exchange for content delivered in a more favorable manner. "They accept more advertising when they feel they are getting something in exchange," PwC concluded.

Certainly a commercial-free episode fits that bill.