Stealth Advertising To Foil Ad Zappers

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CBS/The Early Show
No more "... and now a message from our sponsor"?

Striking a blow against viewers who skip through TV commercials, a new variety series will blend advertising messages into its program fare, offering a seamless hour of entertainment mixed with salesmanship.

The series will air for six weeks this summer on the WB, with Michael Davies, best-known for ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," as its producer, according to a story in Friday's New York Times. Its working title is "Live from Tomorrow."

The show, which Davies described as "a contemporary, hip 'Ed Sullivan Show'," is a response to worries among advertisers and network executives about the rising popularity of Tivo-like personal video recorders, which invite viewers to zap commercial breaks.

The new plan - actually a throwback to long-ago days when sponsors owned network TV and radio shows, and packed them with product plugs - will marry the show with two main sponsors, Pepsi and Nokia, and four secondary sponsors, Davies said.

The show might send an entertainer to the Nokia headquarters to take part in its internship program for a feature, Davies said, or charge a movie studio for an appearance by a star of a film the studio wants to promote.

Though the new show would be the most comprehensive response to ad-zappers, it isn't the first. Since premiering three years ago, CBS' "Survivor" has successfully sold product placements of beer, cars and snack foods within its program content. But these rather blatant endorsements only supplemented conventional ad breaks, rather than replacing them altogether.

Meanwhile, more stealth-like product placements crop up increasingly in dramatic programs, where branded items are displayed in a scene by financial arrangement.

Even so, the scheme doesn't always work. In 1996, ABC's short-lived comedy-variety show starring Dana Carvey even sold product placements in its title. But "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show" lost Taco Bell after the debut episode, which included skits that offended the advertiser.

By Frazier Moore