A recent advertising column by Stuart Elliott in the New York Times describes a new advertising strategy by the retailer Target. Characters from three different ABC situation comedies (Modern Family, The Middle, and Back in the Game) will appear in three different 30-second commercials giving each other gifts—from Target, of course. Having characters from different programs interact during a commercial will, Target hopes, keep viewers from skipping it. Many will probably pause to figure out if what they are watching is an advertisement or a part of the program.
This is a new version of an old advertising strategy I describe in A Word from Our Sponsor. In the 1930s, for example, Maxwell House Coffee sponsored a musical-variety program on the radio called Show Boat during which, between numbers, the announcer would follow characters backstage and discover them on a coffee break–drinking Maxwell House coffee, of course. Likewise, when crooner Rudy Vallee hosted the radio program Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour in a “nightclub” setting, he would “eavesdrop” on a couple at a table who happened to be discussing the healthy properties of Fleischmann’s Yeast. Comedian Jack Benny made jokes about Jell-O or Grape Nuts Flakes or Lucky Strike cigarettes in his comedy-variety programs, depending on the sponsor, and in some daytime soap operas, characters actually discussed laundry soap.
During the “golden age of radio” in the 1930s-40s, advertisers owned the programs, and so when they integrated the entertainers into the advertising they hoped to create what was called “sponsor identification” between the entertainment and the sponsor’s product. They hoped that audiences pleased by Show Boat ‘s musical numbers or by Jack Benny’s jokes would recall that pleasure when they chose their coffee or their gelatinous desserts.
Today, advertisers understand they can no longer count on audience attention to their television commercials. Consumers have become sophisticated about advertising and technology has given them tools to avoid it. So when today’s advertisers integrate entertainment and advertising by using the entertainers or characters of a program, they are hoping to attract attention and please audiences. Target is hoping that viewers, remembering that cute and funny commercial, will imitate their favorite sitcom characters in their choice of discount stores.