Media Mixed

In advertising, the relationship between client and content can be a curious thing. Marketers spend countless hours defining brands and fending off compromising advertising opportunities, only to find themselves launching the sort of campaign I saw the other day.

Advertising was the farthest thing from my mind while I idly watched the Food Network. Then, I noticed a segment that marked the transition from programming to the commercial break. It offered viewers an informative quiz, the subject of which was the best techniques for cooking pasta.

The quiz was very prominently sponsored by AFLAC.

Yes AFLAC, the same health insurance provider that runs those amusing, memorable spots featuring its mascot, the AFLAC Duck. Visit the company’s Web site, and you’ll see AFLAC went to great lengths to maintain a sense of consistency between those famed TV ads and its Web presence. Well, at least it did until it associated itself with pasta during a cooking show.

Am I missing something? I suppose AFLAC’s marketing department did some research and discovered the target audience for one of its insurance plans could be found en mass on the cable cooking channel. But what possessed them to sponsor a segment on cooking pasta? What exactly is the association between health insurance and the importance of not rinsing to ensure the sauce clings to the noodles as it should?

From where I’m sitting, what likely began as an innocent attempt to reach an expanded demographic turned into a precarious endeavor. One can only hope results weren’t too injurious. At best, the brand will fail to register with consumers accustomed to seeing the brand associated with a talking duck. At worst, the sponsorship will dilute the brand image the company clearly worked hard to create.

In AFLAC’s defense, advertising “misassociation” is a common error. When advertisers are faced with appealing audience penetration, resisting the urge to associate oneself with a site, station, magazine, or network (or program) that doesn’t make sense can be a challenge. But associating oneself with content that’s inappropriate just adds insult to injury.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean certain content or programming is off-limits to advertisers who don’t happen to fit the bill. With the right ad message, even an obvious lack of a connection between advertiser and publisher can be effectively overcome.

The key is finding that common ground.

Take a recent online campaign promoting Scion, Toyota’s new brand. I found the company advertising its brand on MTV.com, also in a quiz format. It didn’t launch into automotive-speak, alienating (or, at the very least, boring) most viewers with talk of money-down and financing rates. Instead, Toyota associates itself with an experience the MTV audience can relate to, and one that relates to the product, too.

“What’s more embarrassing to get caught doing while driving?” the pop-up ad read. Several comical options were provided. Once users clicked to submit a response, they were offered the opportunity to virtually build their own Scion car, locate a dealer, or forward the quiz to a friend.

In this case, product pricing and intended brand image were probably factors used to rationalize a placement on MTV.com. Scion may not be the most likely advertising candidate for the site, but the move was justified. A relevant message that defines the association between advertiser and content for the audience’s benefit makes consumer response much less uncertain.

When it comes to planning media buys, the first step most marketers take is to research their target audience and determine where they can be found. The second step should be to evaluate the potential effect of associating the client’s product or service with the property and its content. Controversial content isn’t the only sort that should serve as a red flag. Sometimes, a placement, no matter how appealing, just isn’t right.

In AFLAC’s case, the Food Network simply isn’t the right choice. Little could have been done to create an appropriate association between its services and the specialized content of this very niche channel.

Unless, of course, it sponsored a segment on how to roast a duck.

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