Brands line up for the Oscars, despite declining ratings

The demand shows there’s still no replacement for reach on live TV.

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

On Sunday, the 93rd Academy Awards will air on ABC with no red carpet and an anticipated ratings decline. 

But brands are still putting money behind one of the last events on live TV that draws a sizable audience. 

Expedia is using the show to relaunch its brand positioning; Cadillac is shelling out $17 million to debut its new Lyriq electric crossover vehicle, per Kantar; Grey Goose is launching a line of fruit-infused vodkas at the Oscars pre-show; and Resorts World Las Vegas is putting out a star-studded spot featuring Celine Dion, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan.

Other brands are getting involved in nontraditional ways. For example, Verizon is investing $13 million in the event, including a 5G stunt that gives viewers “exclusive backstage access” through a 360-degree live stream.

ABC asked for $2 million for a 30-second spot during the broadcast, down 13% over last year as the show airs later in the year due to the pandemic, and it’s not offering ratings guarantees or make-goods. The 2020 show netted $150 million in ad revenue for the network, up 13% over 2019.

But if other awards shows this year are any indicator, the audience prospects for the Oscars don’t look great. 

The Grammys ratings plunged 53% this year to 9.2 million viewers, while the Golden Globes viewership was down by 60% to 5.4 million viewers. Just last week, the Country Music Awards ratings hit an all-time low of 6.1 million viewers, down 20% from the year prior.

So if people aren’t interested in watching awards shows, why are brands still shelling out the big bucks? Partly because there’s still no good replacement for reach. 

Despite historic ratings declines of 20% last year to 23.6 million viewers, the Academy Awards is still the most-watched entertainment program of the year, attracting the eighth-largest audience of all programming in 2020, said Geoffrey Calabrese, chief investment officer at Omnicom Media Group North America.

“In an age when very few shows can deliver an audience of more than 20 million people, the Academy Awards continue to hold a high level of appeal for marketers across many product categories,” he explained.

While 20 million viewers may not seem like a lot compared to prior years (more than 55 million people watched the Oscars in 1998 when Titanic took home Best Picture), there are few live programs that can still reach that many people. 

Even if people aren’t tuning into the Oscars live, it still has cultural cache. “Everyone is talking about it the next day and in the lead-up as well,” said Shiv Singh, VP and GM of brand at Expedia.

“Regardless of whether the ratings have been declining, the Oscars have a phenomenal place in culture,” he added. “The conversation has moved to digital, but it's very much a big moment. So it served a perfect place to kick off the launch of the [re]brand.”

But the Oscars place in culture isn’t always celebrated. In recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has come under fire for a blatant lack of diversity in its membership and nominee choices, leading to the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015.

Plus, there’s a new crop of players in the Hollywood spotlight this year, and with theaters closed during the pandemic, blockbuster films don’t quite have the same draw. Not to mention in the age of TikTok, people’s attention spans aren’t long enough to watch a three-hour broadcast with 46 minutes of commercials (per Kantar). 

TV advertisers have been facing the conundrum of declining ratings and price hikes for years, as audiences fragment across screens and it becomes harder to reach large groups of people with the same message in one place. 

The question remains when the price will become too steep for the ROI these events can deliver. 

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