This is a series of spots for USA networks (make sure to follow this link to watch them for free) advertising their program lineup. The foundational spot for this campaign is a :60 which shows a series of unique people, from nuns playing basketball to a knight grabbing a lance out of the back seat of a stationwagon. The voiceover is “This is for the characters,” going on to describe some of the real-life characters. This spot ends with brief shots of some of the characters on USA networks including the reluctant psychic (from The 4400), the obsessive compulsive detective (Tony Shalhoub as Monk, pictured) and the lollipop-sucking cop (Kojak). Pool-out spots for this campaign include three variations using the 10-year old girl who plays the psychic in The 4400, one from the Dead Zone and several from Monk. In one spot, the reluctant psychic is seen amid a collection of glass jars, putting a carefully captured live insect into one. At that moment, there is a power failure and room lights are replaced by the glow from fireflies that the girl has collected. In another, she holds the hand of her mother walking through a hospital and says boy, girl, girl, girl, boy, boy and we see the amazed faces of the pregnant women as she passes them. In the spot using the Dead Zone character Johnny Smith (played by former Breakfast Clubber Anthony Michael Hall), Johnny pets his cat and instantly sees a vision of how the cat will spend his nine lives – locked in a fish freezer, compacted in a rubbish bin, electrocuted chewing on a power cord, etc. and says, “I gotta get a dog.”
Let’s start with a little background. Between 1994 and 2004, the prime-time network television audience in the US shrunk from 12.3 million to 6 million households. During the same period however, the US population increased from 262 million to 293 million. Yet ad rates for primetime television continued to escalate during this period. The cost to reach a 1000 households using primetime network television increased from $7.64 in 1994 to $19.85 in 2004.
This all means that network television has gotten a lot more expensive. And it doesn’t even consider the quality of the viewership. We know that 5% of the television audience today has a TiVo box or other digital video recorder and that 70% of those people fast-forward through commercials. What we don’t know is how many of the rest of viewers are plugged into the Internet or the George Foreman grill during commercial breaks.
You’d assume that advertising would be a lot better these days to compensate for the increased expenses to run it and all of the competition for the viewers attention. Yet, as we chronicle day after day in this blog, it is not the case. At least two-thirds of the advertising we view to pick spots to review is either terrible or mediocre. It seems as if effective advertising is either a vanishing art or a secret too prized to be shared with most advertisers.
Which makes it all the more surprising and refreshing to see this series of spots from USA Networks. We believe these spots are a model of effective advertising and are all the more impressed because they’re coming from a television network and not a classic consumer marketing company.
USA Networks understands one of the biggest issues with cable – sorting through the clutter. This is as true for prospective advertisers as it is for consumers. In spite of our genuine desire as consumers to have more choices, the reality of television is that too many choices paralyze us. Having 10 or 15 channels would undoubtedly lead us to more evenly distribute our viewing time among all of the different options than the choice of 100, 200 or 500 channels does.
Branding and clear brand positioning becomes even more important for a cable network in this situation. Remember that these folks are scrambling to catch some of the ad dollars falling away from network television. To avoid a race for the bottom in ad rates, they need to distinguish themselves from one another. Unfortunately, many of these networks are either plagued by legacy issues (they were started on the Network TV model with no distinctive positioning but just as a place for ‘other stuff’ ) or with absurd positioning (is there anything more appalling than BRAVO becoming a destination for Reality Television?)
USA is trying to break out of this box by creating a brand focused around a coherent brand positioning. Here’s our take on their positioning: USA Networks is the best basic cable channel to watch because only USA networks offers unique, compelling characters like Monk the obsessive compulsive detective who are more like the real unusual people our world is really made up of.
Along the way, USA Networks has done even more than they planned. They’ve reminded us what great advertising is and what it does. Which is:
- Create a unique, ownable position for the brand – “Characters welcome” is unique, it is supported by the product (programs like The 4400, Monk and The Dead Zone) and once USA establishes it in the minds of their consumers, it will be difficult for anyone else to copy.
- Engage Us – One of our favorite marketing authors, Seth Godin always reminds us that brands must tell a story. These spots all tell stories. They are visually interesting and they keep us engaged with the advertising. And most importantly, they support the brand. We’ve seen so many promising executions and funny commercials that fail to have any relevance to the brand at all. The USA Networks Spots are both watchable and directly connected to the brand strategy.
- Talk to the Enthusiasts while Intriguing the Unitiated – Great advertising in the 21st century is more about generating brand recommendations from those who already love the brand than it is about converting new users directly. Putting great weight behind these spots on USA Networks itself might seem like an odd choice (except for the cost advantages of advertising on your own network) but it makes perfect sense in this context. While the ads are clever enough to interest anyone, they are really speaking to the already converted.
- Use great products to build the Brand – What is equally clever about these spots is that they are talking to many people who already love the shows but may not remember or realize that they are watching them on USA Networks. The relevant brand for these people may be “Monk” or “The Dead Zone” but by linking these products together with a relevant brand positioning, USA does a great job of building its own brand with people who already like the products.
There is always a danger with these long pool-out campaigns that the advertiser will become so enchanted with clever executions that they will forget the link back to the brand-building strategy. While there is no evidence of this yet in the USA Networks campaign, they must rigorously test each spot against the brand positioning and ruthlessly cut any which are off-strategy.
Branding Bottom Line:
USA Networks takes us to school, and we feel smarter already.