September 13th, 2007
At MTV, a New Show That Pushes Deodorant
By Suzanne Vranica
Wall Street Journal
Unilever, Network Spar Over 'The Gamekillers' As Old Ad Ploys Return
Next week, MTV plans to air “The Gamekillers,” a new TV series about young men’s quests to win over women. It may not be obvious to viewers, but the series is also about Unilever PLC’s quest to sell more Axe antiperspirant.
Alert fans might connect the dots. The Axe brand name pops up a few times during certain scenes in the show. Posters put up at certain college campuses say: “An AXE Attractions production The Gamekillers.”
The subtle connections between “Gamekillers” and Axe are the result of a carefully crafted compromise between MTV, which doesn’t want people to think it’s airing an extended deodorant commercial, and Unilever, which wants to peddle more product. It’s a compromise being negotiated increasingly in the entertainment industry nowadays, as a growing number of marketers attempt to subtly promote their products by creating and backing entertainment programs.
Some of the country’s best-known marketers including PepsiCo Inc., Burger King Holdings Inc. and Bacardi Ltd.’s Grey Goose are experimenting with new types of product-pitching entertainment, not just for television but for the Web and even movie theaters.
Known in the industry as “branded entertainment,” the approach has its roots in early TV advertising. In the 1940s and 1950s, marketers produced shows like the “Colgate Comedy Hour”; the term “soap operas” originated from the soap peddlers who created the daytime fare. Advertiser-produced entertainment faded after production costs soared.
For the past few decades, advertisers bought TV commercials or, more recently, paid TV networks to insert their products into the storyline of a show. But advertisers are increasingly rethinking the value of these approaches. Consumers can easily tune out traditional ads by changing the channel or speeding through commercial breaks with digital video recorders. And placing a product into a program can sometimes appear too obviously a promotional device. The idea of branded content is to create advertising so subtle it won’t alienate potential customers.
Getting “branded entertainment” on the air isn’t easy. While Unilever’s ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty originally envisaged the show as a TV series, the company initially agreed to finance development of a single episode. That one-hour show aired several times last year on MTV, drawing enough of an audience that the Viacom Inc.-owned cable channel agreed to air another five episodes.
Branded entertainment has another big hazard: If it’s too subtle, it could easily go over the heads of viewers. “The No. 1 job of the program is to be good entertainment. But the second big thing is, it has to have a deep connection to the brand,” says Tom Cotton, president of Conductor, an entertainment and marketing firm in Santa Monica, Calif. “That is challenging.”
The landscape is littered with failed experiments. Several years ago, Nike Inc. produced “Sneaker Heads,” a full-length film about the underground sneaker-collecting culture. The film never made it to the big screen. Nike says the project was in 2004 and adds it has had “great success in the branded-content zone.”
In February, brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos. unveiled an online entertainment network dubbed Bud.TV. The site, which cost the company about $15 million to create, flopped. In May, the company acknowledged it had a problem and revamped the Web site to make it edgier, in hopes of luring more traffic. Still, in July and August the number of visitors to the site was so low it failed to meet Web-tracking firm comScore Inc.’s threshold for measurability. A spokesman for Anheuser-Busch declined to comment.
Getting that one episode of “Gamekillers” on the air was a two-year odyssey. In 2005 BBH executive William Gelner flew to Chicago, where Unilever’s Axe team works, to pitch a new Axe Dry marketing campaign.
As part of its ad campaign, Mr. Gelner suggested the consumer-product titan produce a TV series, which eventually became a quasi-reality show that focused on a young man’s quest to win over a woman. He would need to overcome the vigorous efforts of numerous over-the-top characters—the “Gamekillers”—to unnerve him. If the young man “stayed cool” under pressure (Axe Dry’s marketing message), he’d get the girl.
In the dimly lit meeting room hung a dozen cardboard posters, each featuring a character. There was “The One Upper,” a boastful young man designed to make the hero feel insecure; “The Drama Queen,” a young woman whose frequent hysterics hijack the hero’s moment; and “British Accent Guy,” who attracts women with his European flair. Eventually they would decide all the “Gamekillers”—as well as the young woman—would be actors. Everyone would be in on the joke except the young man himself.
In his pitch, Mr. Gelner stressed the need to do something new. “We want to do something different that is bigger,” Mr. Gelner recalls telling the Unilever marketing executives. “It’s very difficult to reach youth with a 30-second commercial.”
While the Unilever people agreed, the idea of launching a show worried them. “Unilever isn’t asking me to get into the content-development business,” says David Rubin, Axe’s brand-development director for North America. “What Unilever wants me to do is sell more Axe deodorant.”
Mr. Rubin also worried that a show with too much product placement would turn off young, skeptical consumers. Mr. Gelner’s suggestion: Make the connection between the show and the antiperspirant a subtle one. Unilever could, for example, use the characters and distinctive typography of the show’s titles in the planned $35 million ad campaign that would be launched when the program began airing.
After discussing the idea with colleagues, Mr. Rubin and the Axe team eventually agreed to let BBH develop the concept and find a network to air it. Recognizing the agency lacked experience producing anything longer than a 30-second commercial, Mr. Gelner brought in Radical Media Inc., a New York TV-production firm, to help develop the program.
The agency also teamed up with the entertainment division of WPP Group PLC’s GroupM, Unilever’s media-services firm, to shop the idea around Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, some entertainment executives were skeptical the ad executives could produce a series. Mr. Gelner—who left BBH for another agency last May—remembers hearing: “How do I know you can do this...and how do I know that it will be great?”
Still, many networks listened. They had to. Facing intensifying competition for ad dollars from the Web, television executives need to please advertisers. Unilever, which markets everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Dove soap, is one of the world’s biggest advertisers, spending $809 million on ads in the U.S. last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
MTV proved the most open to the idea. The channel had previously worked with Radical Media and advertisers on program development. It also helped that Unilever was already a big advertiser on MTV, spending over $10 million on the network in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
While it wasn’t willing to immediately approve a series, MTV agreed to air a one-hour special, to be financed by Unilever at a cost of about $2 million.
Production began in November 2005. Heavily stylized, with the eccentric feel of a film made by director Wes Anderson, the show followed the travails of Aaron, a recent college graduate trying to woo a young woman in New York named Danielle. Aaron had five dates to succeed, but each encounter is interrupted by a “Gamekiller.” In one scene, Aaron is visibly stunned and his jaw drops while an intellectual named “IQ” showed off his abilities to Danielle. A graphic of a meter popped up intermittently on the screen, measuring Aaron’s effort to keep “his cool.”
As TV networks often do, MTV weighed in with an array of suggestions, successfully changing the background music—from acoustic guitar to more of a rock-and-roll sound—as well as the cast. The network pushed for BBH to replace the professorial-sounding voiceover from an older actor. The agency, which liked the voiceover, was happy to realize MTV’s request came in too late for the voiceover to be recast.
But it was the advertising component that caused the real trouble. Although Unilever wanted its branding to be subtle, it did want Axe’s name to appear in the show somehow. MTV said no—not in the dialogue, not visually in any scenes and not in the show’s title. Unlilever’s Mr. Rubin persisted with his “trial balloons,” even suggesting at one point that one of the characters wear an Axe T-shirt. MTV shot them all down.
Even more worrisome for Unilever, MTV vetoed the company’s planned ad campaign before “Gamekillers” could debut. Unilever and BBH executives had devised the program assuming the ads—on television, print and plastered on mugs in bars—would ensure viewers got the connection. The show’s characters would appear in most of the ads, as would the typography.
But MTV had a different idea. “How do we choreograph this so it doesn’t feel like a commercial?” says John Shea, executive vice president of integrated marketing at MTV. “How do we make sure that this is perceived by the audience to be content? We don’t want the audience to see the deal.”
MTV insisted the ad campaign would have to wait until several weeks after the show first aired. “I didn’t want the show on the air connected to a launched ad campaign,” said Mr. Shea.
While MTV worried about its viewers, Unilever worried about its investment. If we don’t connect Axe Dry to “Gamekillers” somehow, Unilever protested, how is this selling vehicle going to sell anything? “If at some point Axe doesn’t get credit, then I am not doing my job,” says Mr. Rubin.
In a meeting with MTV executives, Mr. Rubin argued that having the ad campaign coincide with the show’s debut not only made more sense, but would win “Gamekillers” more viewers. In the end, MTV reduced Unilever’s wait to 10 days. MTV also offered to air two specially created 15-second ads during the program that could make a very brief reference to the Axe brand. “Keep your cool. Axe Dry,” the ad ends.
Another debate erupted, this one centering on one ad that stuck in MTV’s craw. Set to run in “Entertainment Weekly” a few months before the show’s debut, the full-page tune-in ad was supposed to include language linking “Gamekillers” to Axe. Unilever suggested lines such as “Axe Presents Gamekillers” or “Gamekillers in Association with Axe.” MTV vetoed the idea, believing that it would tar the show with an “infomercial” tinge.
Both sides bickered. The ad “became the test of how we were going to convey the message of Axe’s involvement,” says Justin Wilkes, vice president of media and entertainment at Radical Media. Eventually the two sides compromised with an ad that contained a sentence at the bottom of the page, in tiny print, also with the slogan “Keep your cool. AXE dry.”
“The Gamekillers” aired for the first time on MTV on Monday, Feb. 6, 2006, at 11 p.m. Both sides were pleased with the results.
MTV says the debut attracted 3.3 million viewers, comparable to one of its most popular shows. Over the next 10 days, the show aired nine more times on either MTV or its sibling channel MTV2, drawing a total audience of nearly 10 million.
Not everyone watching the show realized that Aaron’s travails were underwritten by an antiperspirant. Jay Neesanant, a 24-year-old New York recruiter, watched the show three times and had “no idea” it was related in any way to Axe. But he says he doesn’t care. “I want to see more shows and see what other Gamekillers they can come up with,” Mr. Neesanant says.
Unilever says it believes enough consumers got the connection. After the show aired, executives at Edelman, Axe’s public-relations firm, scoured the Internet, searching blogs and Web sites. In less than three months, the “Gamekillers” group page on MySpace had attracted 75,000 friends; the “Gamekillers” Web site, which also tied the show to Axe Dry, attracted 1.4 million unique visitors. Based on that, Unilever believes that the show helped its related ad campaign boost Axe Dry’s sales by 60% in 2006.
With the first show a success, MTV has loosened its position on the next five half-hour episodes, the first of which debuts Sept. 21. The new episodes include mentions of the brand—for example, the male contestants will vie for the chance for their name to be added on an Axe-branded trophy. And Axe was also allowed to put up posters at college campuses that carry the name Axe and tell readers where to tune in for an upcoming episode.
Now Unilever is making content development a bigger part of its marketing playbook. “I would say almost every major brand we have has some type of content play,” says Laura Klauberg, Unilever’s global media chief.
Last July, to boost sales of its nonbutter spray I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, the company ran a seven-part satirical animated series online about the refrigerator clash between a curvy talking spray bottle named Spraychel and a stick of butter named Buttricia. Over a five-week period, the Web site drew about 400,000 unique visitors, according to Unilever.
In the most recent edition, a parody of the HBO hit “Sex and the City,” Spraychel frolics with gal pal Spritzy, a curvy Wish-Bone Salad Spritzer. In one episode the girls hit the club scene. “Look at that tomato, so juicy, ripe, simply organic,” coos Spritzy, eyeing a tomato strutting by. “Wait till he gets a taste of me.”