Brandtique Of The Week: Cingular's 'Shout Out'

Much has been made of the Discovery Channel's heavy reliance on reality shows focusing on hot rods and souped-up motorcycles. It's a long way from the wonder-of-nature genre the network was once known for--so much so that shareholders have voiced concern that the Discovery brand may be suffering, Broadcasting & Cable reported last month.

While Ted Koppel's debut on the network this fall may mollify some of the worried investors, the game show "Cash Cab" is likely to rev up their engines. The show doesn't remind anyone of "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."

In fact, one major problem is that it reminds one too much of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." The major difference between the two? It takes place in a taxi cruising the streets of New York, instead of an elaborately designed soundstage. Otherwise, contestants answer pop-culture questions, build their potential winnings--and, when stumped, can phone a friend through the AT&T Lifeline. Whoops! Make that the Cingular Wireless Mobile Shout Out (evaluated and ranked via research firm iTVX as one of the five most effective product placements last week).



Officially just the Mobile Shout Out--the brand is attached when the cab driver/host hands the phone to the contestants and mentions it's a Cingular--it provides struggling contestants with another option (there's also a Street Shout Out, where contestants lean out the cab window and ask for help). In a Feb. 13 episode, contestants Michael and Amy dialed Royal when they couldn't remember the name of the California congressman linked to Chandra Levy, the Washington intern who disappeared several years ago. Alas, Royal proved to be no help and they failed to get the correct answer--Gary Condit.

Cingular would have been well-advised to take a pass on this brand integration. Product placement works best when seamlessly placed in a program--it needs to sort of get noticed by going unnoticed. In this case, since the show barely stops reminding one of "Millionaire" (in a recent episode, the host was just about to ask a contestant, "Is that your final answer?" when he caught himself and amended it to "official answer"), the Cingular presence suffers from being too reminiscent of the AT&T Lifeline. Since the prime-time "Millionaire" was such a huge hit before it faded, it seems likely that a viewer's first thought upon learning a contestant can call a friend courtesy of a major telecommunications company would be: "Where have I seen that before?" (Food for thought: The former SBC, now the new AT&T, owns part of Cingular, which two years ago absorbed AT&T Wireless.)

The Coca-Cola Red Room on "American Idol" is now part of the show's milieu. Imagine the chuckles if a Pepsi Blue Room were to show up on the next talent competition? Pepsi would look like a copycat--a major image problem--and probably negate the effect of the placement.

Cingular executives may themselves have wondered how effective affixing their brand to "Cash Cab's" Mobile Shout Out would be. Each episode has multiple segments, but it appears that the Cingular brand is only attached to an episode's first Mobile Shout Out. On Feb. 13, Michael and Amy's request to phone a friend was met by the host handing over the phone and saying: "All right, dial 'em up on your Cingular Wireless connection." In the next segment, Josh and Carla sought to call their buddy, Tim, and the host just handed over the phone--Cingular went unmentioned and likely unnoticed. It certainly makes sense to take precautions to avoid clutter or overexposure. But in this case, it has the reverse effect--if a viewer notices Cingular the first time, there's a noticeable absence the second.

Beyond specifics of the brand integration, another reason that the Cingular Shout Out lacks punch is the general weakness of the show. The program cries out for an infusion of drama and energy. Perhaps because the contestants are often Yuppie-ish Manhattan-ites seeking a cab as they're brought into the show, they often seem more preoccupied with getting to Balthazar for dinner than earning an extra $200. The delirium of the contestants on "The Price is Right" is grating, but the palpable disinterest sometimes on "Cash Cab" doesn't work either. Perhaps "Cash Cab: Dubuque" is the answer. A couple hundred bucks might mean more in Iowa. The host, Ben Bailey, is also far too mellow to carry a show. Again, overly boisterous hosts can be too much, but Bailey at times gives the perception he'd rather be somewhere else.

Cingular might as well. It appears they made a bad call.

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