The Dangers of Amazing Media Sponsorships

It isn’t hard to differentiate media partnerships that seem awkwardly forced from those that are a perfect fit. “Project Runway” and online apparel retailer Bluefly.com are one example of the latter. So is the business relationship between “The Amazing Race” and Travelocity.

The travel site targeted the reality show as the ideal TV media buy years ago, and has spent the subsequent seasons evolving its advertising strategy from content integration — whereby its Roaming Gnome mascot is a key component of a task show contestants must complete — to contests that incorporate the Web and Travelocity.com. The brand’s efforts have paid off; with its staple commercial spots and “Pit Stop” prizes, Travelocity is now as much a part of the show as “Roadblock” misinterpretations and humorous team dynamics.

What began as a fairly ordinary reality series sponsorship has become a prime example of what can happen when an advertiser manages to track down the ultimate media partner. Travelocity’s presence on “The Amazing Race”-branded property has mushroomed to include a dedicated “Travelocity Pit Stop Sweepstakes” page on the show’s site and a blanket of banner ads. But I’m not here just to tell you to mirror what this advertiser has done by tracking down an amazing sponsorship opportunity of your own. I’m here to offer a caveat: one media buyer’s success can generate another’s malfunction.

What got me thinking about this is an old blog post from industry pundit and author Joseph Jaffe. In discussing the state of broadcast television, Jaffe wrote, “I love “The Amazing Race”, but I couldn’t tell you one single advertisement EVER to have been placed in the show. The only advertiser I am aware of is the solid show integration by Travelocity�”

Jaffe can’t be alone in his consumer-side observation. Travelocity has done such a thorough job of integrating itself into “The Amazing Race” through virtually every available touch point, it has left no room for competition.

Some have tried to prove otherwise. A recent visit to the home page of “The Amazing Race” site found a button indicating an additional sponsorship by a leading automaker for its 2009 model. Related expandable banners were in rotation as well, along with other non-Travelocity ads. It was an honest mistake on the automaker’s part to think it could commandeer a piece of this hot online property; its product isn’t in direct competition with Travelocity’s, and the audience seems to be a good fit. But it’s late to a party that started back in 2005 with that trademark gnome’s reality television debut.

When an advertiser’s presence is so strongly demarcated in association with a media brand, there isn’t room for anyone else. Like Jaffe offline, site visitors won’t remember that car in association with the media brand. The effectiveness of Travelocity’s presence there (both concrete and psychological for visitors) robs advertisers like that automaker of the benefits aligning oneself with a well-liked property and its loyal fans can bring. Its ads may produce clicks, but it’s missing out on the adjacent advantages of partnering with an established online destination.

An existing audience association with another advertiser brand isn’t routinely at the top of a media planner’s list of considerations. Perhaps it should be. This potential risk isn’t something that automated planning software will reveal, yet it can influence campaign results in terms of brand perception (or more accurately, lack thereof). A successful placement isn’t just about tangible actions taken, as Travelocity has illustrated so adeptly. Our objective as strategists should be to see the brands we represent cited in the context of Jaffe’s quote, elevated to a level where advertiser and media property — whether it be a popular show, film, blog, vertical destination, or niche site — are appropriately and indisputably linked.

Now that would be amazing.

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