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Olympics image is everything for NBC

WashPost: MTV-like Athens ad campaign aimed at younger viewers.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The television commercial opens with a feeble-voiced twenty-something in a white tank top, pink sunblock covering his nose, billing himself as the official lifeguard for the U.S. swim team.

The camera cuts to Baltimore swim sensation Michael Phelps slashing through the water. "I have not saved him yet," says the lifeguard in a saucy tone as he knits an afghan by the pool. The camera quickly bolts to diver Laura Wilkinson, twisting and flipping into the pool. "I have not saved her yet," says the lifeguard, filing his toenails. Then cut to Natalie Coughlin, who holds five U.S. swim records. "She actually saved me," he says as an obviously perturbed Coughlin drags him to safety.

The lifeguard spot is part of NBC's unprecedented, $30 million promotional blitz promoting the Aug. 13-29 Athens Olympics and is aimed at capturing the young viewers who eluded the network during its disappointing 2000 Sydney Games. The network's seven-commercial offensive, officially launching this week, is the latest attempt by sports marketers to woo the 18-to-34-year-old audience that advertisers highly prize.

"It's reinventing the Olympics to a new generation," said Vince Manze, co-president of the NBC Agency, the network's in-house advertising promotion arm. "Our goal here is to capture every generation of 18 through 34 from now through 2012."

( is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture)

NBC is trying to infuse edginess and attitude in its 30-second commercials without going over the line, as the NFL did in its MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show last February, in which pop idol Justin Timberlake bared Janet Jackson's breast. Major League Baseball earlier this month backed off from placing advertisements for the movie "Spider-Man 2" directly on its bases. The stakes are big for everybody.

"NBC knows that the Olympics cannot continue to be a sports business and a sports marketing windfall if they don't have younger audiences," said sports marketer David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. "Look at the rights fees. If you are only delivering an older demographic, your financial model for the Olympics doesn't work."

The commercials include NASCAR's Tony Stewart driving his Chevrolet Monte Carlo off a diving platform and the air bag inflating underwater; Wilkinson pondering life from 10 meters above a pool; Coughlin being dropped into the water as a baby.

"We're dealing with a group that is comfortable with quick cuts," said John Miller, president of the NBC Agency. "They are the MTV generation, comfortable with a lot of images coming at them, excitement, edgy."

Case in point: NBC's ad featuring the U.S. women's gymnastics team, which won the 2003 world championship in Anaheim, Calif., even though its members were young, inexperienced and hampered by injuries. In past years, NBC commercials emphasized beauty and grace. This year's gymnastics spot emphasizes a group of young women overcoming adversity, with a score by the hot metal group, "P.O.D.," for emphasis.

"The idea was to use a piece of music that showed them kicking butt," Manze said. "Not so much beauty and grace, but the empowerment of women."

Sydney's 15-hour time difference and a September time setting — as well as the lack of pull with the younger crowd — decimated NBC's ratings four years ago. The Games earned the lowest TV ratings for a Summer Olympics since 1968 in Mexico City. With this year's Olympics in Greece — seven hours ahead of the United States — and in August, NBC thinks its commercials may provide the insurance it needs to reach Americans hungry for sports.

"Sydney was an eye-opener for us," said Miller. "You could blame the time-lag and certainly those factors play into it. We have taken the Olympics for granted. We just assumed [viewers] showed up all the time. The numbers were good but not as good as we wanted it to be."

The network ran the commercials through several focus groups to make sure they could grab young viewers without alienating the over-35 crowd that historically arranges its schedules around the Olympic Games. NBC is going to plaster the commercials throughout the television shows that reach the younger audience, skewed toward males, such as "Friends" reruns, reality shows like "Fear Factor," "For Love or Money," "Last Comic Standing" and a new entry this summer called "Next Action Star."

"All of this is a way to build up these characters because people are going to root," Manze said. "We want them to root for these people, but in the youth market we are also selling the coolness of sports."