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For Oscar’s ads, the show will go on

The red carpet glitz will be gone from the Oscar presentation on Sunday night, but the high-profile new ad campaigns will go on with the show, say top marketers who plan to premiere their multi-million dollar commercials.
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The red carpet glitz will be gone from the Oscar presentation on Sunday night, but the event’s high-profile new ad campaigns will go on with the show, top marketers tell That is, if Hollywood’s big show airs as planned.

WITH THE INVASION of Iraq expected to begin any time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Walt Disney Co.’s ABC have been scrambling to make the over-the-top glitzy presentation more subdued and reflective of wartime. Hollywood’s biggest stars like Jack Nicholson, Nicole Kidman and other celebrities will still be there, but on Tuesday, Academy officials announced that they would scrap the red carpet extravaganza and eliminate screaming fans from the televised pre-show.

Academy officials couldn’t be reached for further comment, but sources say the show would likely be delayed if an Iraq invasion begins over the weekend, particularly if major advertisers were to yank their commercials.

Despite the threat of war — at this point — many of the corporate advertisers remained committed to the event.

“With the show going on, we will continue to air our spots,” said Pierre Schaeffer, chief marketing officer of Kodak, which plans to break a global ad campaign, called “Share,” during the broadcast.

“If there is an Academy Award broadcast, our intention is to be there,” said Cadillac spokesman Jeff Kuhlman. The luxury car maker will air a 60-second commercial and several 30-second spots.

Other advertisers are less certain.

Procter & Gamble plans to cancel all network TV advertising for 48 hours after war breaks out even if the networks don’t switch to 24-hour coverage. That would include commercials scheduled to air during the Academy Awards, said P&G spokeswoman Robin Schroeder. After the initial 48 hours, the packaged goods giant will return to family or entertainment-oriented cable network programs.

Earlier this week a Pepsi executive said the soft drink giant would pull its TV commercials for as much as a week after bombing begins in Iraq. But it’s undetermined whether that would apply to the Oscars.

Pepsi had planned to debut its anticipated brand campaign starring Destiny’s Child singer Beyonce Knowles as well as a new campaign for Aquafina featuring Latin bombshell Shakira. In the Pepsi commercial directed by Spike Lee, Knowles, who replaces Britney Spears as Pepsi’s spokeswoman, updates the opera “Carmen.”

“We’ll do whatever’s appropriate,” said Pepsi spokesman Dave Dececcho. “It depends on what happens. The situation today is a lot different than it will be tomorrow or Saturday.”

The Oscar telecast, which airs on ABC on Sunday, March 23, typically attracts the second largest television audience of the year, topped only by the National Football League’s Super Bowl. Although it’s been declining in audience size—last year’s event drew an average of 41.7 million viewers, one of the lowest rated Oscars on record— it has become as much a premiere showcase for flashy new ad campaigns as a venue for showing off the ultimate in Hollywood glamour.

The Oscars have been postponed three times, but never canceled. The presentation was first delayed after floods deluged Los Angeles in 1938; after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; and after the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981.

ABC has implied that it might include news crawls across the bottom of TV screen or interrupt the presentation for news updates. In that event, corporate advertisers are working closely with the network on contingencies to make sure that commercials don’t air next to war footage.

Some ads may be reshuffled to a later time during the broadcast, or possibly to other ABC programs.

“The best we can do is give some general rules and have some common understanding on how to handle the situation,” said Kodak’s Schaeffer. “We have to trust the best judgement of the network.”


Whatever happens, it could be costly for the network and its sponsors.

ABC, which spent about $47 million acquiring rights for the 2003 Academy Awards, has sold an estimated $78 million worth of advertising time during the half-hour pre-show and actual broadcast. Corporate advertisers have paid the hefty price tag of an estimated $1.3 million for each 30-second commercial. Yet demand for the broadcast, referred to as the “Super Bowl for women,” was so high that ABC sold all 58 available 30-second slots months ago.

Other than Pepsi, a number of advertisers, including Kodak, AOL Broadband and financial services firm AIG, have tied global campaign launches to the Oscars. The AOL commercial features actress Sharon Stone being seduced by the online service’s familiar running man symbol.

“Advertisers are trying to calibrate whether the tone of their ads, which have been expensively put together, are appropriate and whether this is the right moment to air their spots,” said Seth Siegel, co-founder of product licensing agency The Beanstalk Group.

If ABC is forced to pull ads because of war coverage, the network might have to give cash back unless the marketer has an ongoing relationship with the network so the lost commercial time could be made up in other programming, according to Joe Mandese, editor of Media Markets Daily.

On one hand, if the bombing in Iraq is already underway, the publicity over vocal Hollywood celebrities opposed to the war might even draw a bigger audience for the event.

“You’ve got to believe that people will want a diversion in the middle of this,” said Mandese. “People might tune just to see all the anti-war speeches.”

If the Oscars do air on schedule, the advertisers will have to make sure that their commercials take the right tone, or face striking a dischordant note with the American public.

“The only downside is if the messages are done inappropriately,” said Carl Fremont, senior vice president and global media director at marketing services agency Digitas. “They have to examine the use of humor and how it’s portrayed.”

A number of the commercials planned are light-hearted or humorous in nature.

First-time Oscar advertiser Washington Mutual uses humor in its three new commercials showing people who feel empowered after they apply for a home loan through the financial services firm.

“Even in the most trying times, people continue to want to be entertained,” said Dave King, senior vice president of advertising and brand management for Washington Mutual. “They look for diversion.”

Other commercials airing during the event include a commercial for Yahoo! Personals, called “Big Night.” In the 30-second ad, various people are seen getting ready for a date with someone they’ve met through the online personals service.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to capitalize on this social phenomenon, putting our message in front of people at such a high-impact event really helps legitimize online dating,” said Katie Mitic, vice president and general manager of Yahoo! Personals.

Other advertisers include McDonald’s, Mastercard, J.C. Penney, Charles Schwab and Anheuser-Busch.