Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Monday, January 28, 2008


Traditionally, every summer the broadcast television networks launched marketing campaigns to spotlight their program offerings for the coming season. The campaigns were often uneventful and run-of-the-mill, with viewers and the media paying little notice. In 1997, however, ABC, Inc., unveiled a different kind of campaign created by TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles. The campaign, called ‘‘TV Is Good,’’ was designed to help ABC break out of the traditional confines of network slogans and logos, and it created a stir.
Targeting viewers aged 18 to 49 and leveraging a budget of $12 million in its first season, ‘‘TV Is Good’’ directly addressed the guilt associated with watching television. Commercials featured messages that verged on the cynical, such as ‘‘Don’t worry, you’ve got billions of brain cells,’’ and ‘‘Life Is Short. Watch TV.’’ While many in the media criticized the campaign’s apparently insincere celebration of decadent TV-watching, the resulting debate about the merits of ‘‘TV Is Good’’ built considerable buzz around the ABC brand. A 1998–99 modification of the campaign, budgeted at $15 million and tagged ‘‘We Love TV,’’ further contributed to ABC’s emerging personality.
Although industry observers widely credited the overall campaign with contributing a distinct brand positioning to ABC, the network continued to suffer ratings declines. Because this was a problem endemic to broadcast TV at the time, however, such statistics were not an accurate measure of the success of the marketing campaign. During the 1999–2000 TV season and beyond, ABC continued to refine the marketing style and tone first introduced in 1997.

While ABC and the other two main broadcast networks, CBS Broadcasting Inc. (CBS) and the NBC Television Network (NBC), had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on prime-time television for decades, the 1980s saw increasing competition from cable television networks such as the Cable News Network (CNN) and Home Box Office (HBO) as well as the Fox Broadcasting Company. Cable networks gradually eroded the big three’s dominance of the market. In 1977, 93 percent of households watched one of the big three networks, but 10 years later that figure had slipped to 70 percent. By 1996 the big three commanded only 49 percent of the prime-time audience, the first time ever that the combined share of ABC, CBS, and NBC had fallen below 50 percent.
Like CBS and NBC, ABC faced tough financial times in the 1980s, and it had to enact cost-cutting measures just to stay profitable. Capital Cities purchased ABC in 1985, and in 1995 it was bought by Disney. By 1996 ABC had fallen to third place in prime-time ratings, with only 15 percent of all viewers, behind frontrunners NBC (18 percent) and CBS (16 percent). The network decided that it had to seek a clear, strong image to compete with NBC and CBS and the various cable channels.

While television networks, as mass-media businesses, wanted to attract as many viewers as possible for their advertisers, ABC’s 1997 campaign targeted a narrower market. The whimsical style of the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ campaign was specifically aimed at a youthful audience. During the early 1990s ABC was the number one network among the 18–49 age group, the market advertisers coveted; by 1997, however, the network had slipped to a distant second in this market. All efforts were directed at winning back this audience.
This tactic did not please everyone. For example, Joseph Turow, professor of media at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said of the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ campaign, ‘‘I don’t think they care if it turns off people who are over the hill. Advertisers and networks are really getting manic about attracting people under 30.’’ Alan Cohen, ABC’s executive vice president for marketing, said that the network was not intentionally spurning people over 49. Cohen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, when ABC tested its campaign promos on viewers aged 18–54, ‘‘The campaign played universally the same . . . The audience is right with us on this.’’

In addition to CBS and NBC, ABC faced competition from the increasingly robust Fox network. The many cable networks, including CNN, HBO, ESPN, Showtime, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, the Discovery Channel, USA Network, E! Entertainment Television, and the Family Channel, also presented ABC with competition.
Before 1997 there was a difference in the way broadcast networks and cable channels used marketing campaigns. Broadcast networks relied on slogans—such as ‘‘We’re still the one’’—and promos to market their new seasons. Cable networks, however, used the style of marketing known as branding, in which consumers were led to identify the company or product with a specific image. For example, Nickelodeon marketed its shows as family-based entertainment that children especially would enjoy. Its marketing encouraged viewers to think of family fun whenever they saw or heard the Nickelodeon name. CNN marketed its shows as no nonsense programs for people who enjoyed hard news, inviting viewers to identify the network as a reputable, sober source for information.
The 1997 season saw the broadcast networks attempting to use branding for the first time. While ABC was using ‘‘TV Is Good’’ to project a lighthearted image, NBC’s marketing campaign promoted ‘‘Must-see TV,’’ and CBS advertised ‘‘Welcome Home.’’ The NBC campaign attempted to capitalize on its ratings successes, using stars from top-rated programs such as Seinfeld in on-air promos. The CBS ‘‘Welcome Home’’ campaign, which was also used in 1996, attempted to portray the network as the place for ‘‘comfort and dependability,’’ according to a company executive. Fox, UPN, and the WB had similar slogans. ‘‘The name of the game now is branding, the quaint notion of imbuing a network with a personality that will give a sort of halo effect to the programs it presents,’’ wrote Gary Levin in Variety, describing the networks’ 1997 campaigns. ‘‘Desperate to hold viewers, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are copying successful cable networks with identifiable personalities,’’ added the Orange County Register ’s Kinney Littlefield.

ABC and competitor NBC took a few shots at each other over the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ campaign. NBC fired the first volley when it ran a satirical spot during its primetime megahit Seinfeld. The spot featured black lettering on a yellow background, just like the ABC ads. The copy read, ‘‘Right now you could be watching another network. But you’re not stupid. You’re watching the number-one network in America. The National Broadcasting Company.’’ On the record ABC responded through a spokesman, who quipped, ‘‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’’ Off the record ABC faxed a five-page memo to NBC headquarters, reportedly with one line on each page:
(1) ‘‘Right now you could be writing original promos’’;
(2) ‘‘But you’re not’’; (3) ‘‘You’re copying ours’’;
(4) ‘‘Thanks!’’ (5) ‘‘ABC.’’
The wackiness was not over, however. According to the New York Times, NBC employees—allegedly writers for the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun—drafted mock promotions of the ABC campaign. The promos, which clearly were takeoffs on the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ theme, featured lines such as ‘‘Museums cause cancer; we mean it. You’ll die,’’ and ‘‘Our laziness and stupidity are good news for Japan.’’ But ABC had the last laugh, for the hubbub surrounding the campaign only meant more publicity for a third-place network anxious for attention.

ABC’s third-place position in the ratings convinced its executives that the time was right to try something completely different. As Cohen told Broadcasting & Cable, ‘‘When you’re not number one, you have to take more chances.’’ ABC’s research had revealed that most television viewers could not distinguish between the existing network advertising slogans and that most people tended to ignore logos or stars repeating catchphrases. Cohen said, ‘‘They were all drowning out each other, and it left networks without a brand identity.’’ The goal of the ABC campaign was clear. Cohen explained to the Salt Lake Tribune, ‘‘We want to establish an attitude and personality for ABC that’s funny, friendly, and irreverent.’’ Through test and focus groups the network had further discovered that people enjoyed television more than they were willing to admit, and as Lee Clow, TBWA\Chiat\Day’s chairman, explained, the agency based its creative approach on this knowledge. ‘‘As you talk to people about their lives these days and how stressed they are, TV is this period of time where they actually get to recuperate a little bit,’’ Clow said. ‘‘Kind of just plop yourself down and let something happen to you so you don’t have to use your brain and work too hard for a few minutes. So we thought, why not kind of honestly celebrate the notion that TV is a good part of our lives, and sitting down in front of it for a while isn’t a bad thing.’’
Launching a marketing campaign that celebrated television was not without risks in 1997. At the time there was outspoken criticism of television, with many people objecting to the sexual situations, strong language, and violence found in the programming. By choosing to praise television at a time when it was popular to criticize the medium, ABC knew that it was taking a chance. The first phase of the campaign, which did not mention specific network programs, appeared on television. These spots established the visual elements that would define the campaign throughout its run: a yellow background on which appeared the black text of witty slogans offering a variety of takes on the ‘‘TV Is Good’’ theme. The initial wave of spots featured messages such as ‘‘Don’t worry, you’ve got billions of brain cells,’’ ‘‘You can talk to your wife anytime,’’ ‘‘The couch is your friend,’’ and ‘‘Life is short. Watch TV.’’ Print and billboard ads appeared next, and, finally, the network began running spots for individual shows that incorporated the campaign style. In addition to the ads, ABC initiated cross-promotions with American Airlines, McDonald’s, and Toys ‘‘R’’ Us. In the American Airlines promotion, the monthly newsletter for AAdvantage members included trivia questions about plot twists in ABC shows. AAdvantage members could then earn frequent-flier miles by mailing in correct answers to the questions. This extensive marketing reflected the fact that ABC had increased its advertising and promotion budget by 30 percent over the previous year. The budget for ‘‘TV Is Good’’ was approximately $12 million in 1997–98. The TV spots got the attention of the press even before they were first broadcast. The message was quickly picked up by newspaper writers, and ABC was thrust into the media spotlight. Under the headline ‘‘Ads that Rot Your Brain,’’ Jonathan Foreman of the Wall Street Journal wrote, ‘‘The new TV season gets under way this week, amidst one of the worst ad campaigns of all time. In an apparent effort to win over the young viewers of ‘Generation X,’ ABC settled on irony as an advertising gimmick.’’ Monica Collins of the Boston Herald said, ‘‘At ABC, they’re underestimating us like mad while the network runs the snootiest ad campaign ever.’’ Some ABC affiliates had misgivings about the advertisements, too. Complaints from several affiliates convinced the network to drop one spot that said, ‘‘Books are overrated.’’ In addition, organizations critical of television, including the nonprofit TV-Free America, blasted the commercials. As the spots began to air and the media debate about the campaign’s merits gathered steam, Cohen told Bill Carter of the New York Times, ‘‘The reality is the spots have already worked. People are talking about ABC.’’ Jamie Tarses, then the entertainment president for ABC, told Broadcasting & Cable, ‘‘Anybody would give their left arm for this kind of attention. This is what you want if you’re selling television shows or cars or whatever . . . It’s about making noise.’’
For the 1998–99 TV season, TBWA\Chiat\Day offered what it called an ‘‘evolved’’ version of the campaign, which, according to the New York Times, ‘‘is adspeak for ‘You don’t like it? All right, already! We’ll change it.’’’ The ironic humor was toned down, and ‘‘TV Is Good’’ was changed to the slightly more sincere ‘‘We Love TV.’’ The messages continued to be delivered in the same visual style (black text on a bright yellow background), and many seemed in keeping with the brashness of the previous seasons. For instance, one spot advised viewers, ‘‘Don’t just sit there. Okay, just sit there&’’ another offered the dubious historical interpretation ‘‘Before TV, two world wars. After TV, zero.’’ But the campaign also began to offer less polarizing messages, such as ‘‘TV, so good they named a frozen meal after it,’’ and ‘‘Without a TV, how would you know where to put the sofa?’’ The 1998–99 season likewise marked an increase in series-specific commercials using the overall campaign’s visual elements, humorous tone, and tagline. The campaign budget for that season was estimated at $15 million.

ABC saw its ‘‘TV Is Good’’ campaign as successful for a number of reasons. First, the campaign received an impressive amount of press coverage. Second, another of the big three networks added to the publicity windfall by mocking the campaign with a television spot of its own. Third, public response to the campaign was mostly favorable. Cohen said to Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, ‘‘We did talk to a lot of viewers around the country and show them this material, and I think people sort of got it. They said, ‘Wow, this is funny. ABC is funny. They must have good comedies.’ And that’s exactly the connection we wanted them to make.’’ Though industry observers likewise credited the network with effectively generating consumer interest and with building an identifiable brand image for itself, 1997–98 saw ABC’s ratings decline more precipitously than those of the other two major networks. The many problems confronting ABC—ratings declines, an inability to create popular new programs, and ever-increasing competition from cable networks—were, however, the problems facing its broadcast competitors as well. In this context, ratings increases were not necessarily a realistic eventuality, at least in the short term. ‘‘The story isn’t so much growth anymore,’’ Joe Mandese, editor of the industry newsletter The Myers Report, told the New York Times, ‘‘as preserving your share.’’ The network’s ratings continued to decline in the following years, but so did those of NBC and CBS.
In the 1999–2000 season ABC and TBWA\Chiat\Day further redefined the brand-building project. Although the network’s promotional spots continued to employ the visual elements and a measure of the ironic humor from the previous two seasons’ campaigns, the new tagline, ‘‘America’s Broadcasting Company,’’ seemed to mark a departure in tone and strategy. The network and its agency maintained that the campaign was not a reversal of the previous years’ tactics but rather a further evolution. This view was supported by a recurring message in the ‘‘America’s Broadcasting Company’’ spots: ‘‘United we watch.’’

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