OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

I have seen the future of advertising and it is ... American Idol?

Madison Avenue can't stop buzzing about the talent search show two weeks after the conclusion of its initial run in the United States on Fox Broadcasting.

At first, our version of Pop Idol was widely derided as a cheesy update of corny talent-hunt fare such as Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and Star Search. But the steady gains in the Nielsen ratings, which spiked in the final weeks to break viewership records for Fox, had advertising and media executives rethinking their early naysaying.

Apart from the boffo audience numbers, as Variety would enthuse, Fox was most thrilled by the fact that the content of American Idol caused no advertisers to recoil with dismay or fear. That's a rare achievement for Fox, which typically loves to push the envelope with racy fare to appeal to younger viewers, especially when reality programming is involved.

This time, though, American Idol proved squeaky clean for the blue-chip marketers that usually shy from more provocative Fox shows such as When Animals Attack or Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? (Maybe with the uproar over corporate malfeasance in US boardrooms, there'll be a reality special for the new fall season called Who Wants to Attack a Multimillionaire?).

The roster of companies that ran commercials during the American Idol finale, which drew an average audience of 22.8 million on what is typically a low-viewership late-summer evening, included such establishment stalwarts as Disney, Hershey, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Sears, Unilever and Wrigley.

So advertiser-friendly was American Idol that two of the most mainstream names in marketing, Coca-Cola and Ford Motor, took special sponsorship roles that wove them into the content of each of the 12 episodes. For fees estimated at less than $10 million for each company, Coca-Cola and Ford enjoyed the kinds of pervasive product placements that were standard operating procedure in American TV until rising costs and the scandal over fixed quiz shows killed the concept almost five decades ago.

The contestants and/or judges were seen on screen drinking Coke, holding cups with Coke logos, standing by Coke coolers, even seated on couches in the Coke trademark red-and-white colour scheme. Ford had its Focus line, aimed at younger drivers, serve as the star of vignettes in which the contestants playfully cruised around Los Angeles.

Now, with the success of the show, it's Ford and Coca-Cola that are in the driver's seat. Both are expected to be sponsors of a 28-city American Idol tour, scheduled to start on 8 October, as well as return as sponsors when the series returns to Fox in January.

Coca-Cola's role in the show even turned up as a bullet point in a report by a UBS Warburg analyst, in support of her recommendation reiterating that the company's shares are a "strong buy". The analyst, Caroline Levy, cited the American Idol sponsorship as an example of Coca-Cola's clever ability to "substantially leverage its marketing dollars".

Wait till she finds out there are plans afoot for an American Idol movie.

Imagine the marketing tie-ins: moviegoers who buy giant-sized Cokes at the concession stand win tickets to join the studio audience of the TV show from ushers dressed as Simon Cowell.

Or is that just "Idol" speculation?

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