Getting core proposition, title right half the battle: ABC's Mike Benson

MUMBAI: "God, these women are attractive but why are they so desperate?" That in essence has been the average Joe's response at first sampling to ABC's network reviving hit Desperate Housewives.

The best marketing endeavours are often disguised as content. The challenge behind television marketing is finding out what the essence of a show is. At the same time never spoon feed your audience.

These were the words of advice that US broadcaster ABC Entertainment senior VP marketing Mike Benson had this morning for the strong turnout at the second Indian edition of Promax&BDA in Mumbai. The event is dedicated to brainstorming ideas in the branding and marketing of television content and channels.



Benson, who has been with ABC for seven years, dwelt on how unique marketing innovations were used to create hype around Desperate Housewives and Lost. These two shows have taken ABC from fourth position to number two pushing hard on number one. Before that the last hit that ABC had was Who Wants To Be A Millionaire which was four years ago. As Benson says, "It was no fun seeing us going from number one to number four."

The cast of 'Desperate Housewives' celebrate at an awards ceremony

"However, to stop a losing streak it is imperative that you innovate. If you don't then you will have to stay content with being at the bottom. Prior to Desperate Housewives, I remember that ABC's affiliates wanted the marketing teams' heads on a spike. While desperate times call for desperate measures, it is not necessary that you do things too differently. It is, however, extremely important to find the core essence of what your show is about. This then has to be clearly articulated to the audience."

He put ABC's success in marketing Desperate Housewives and Lost successfully to focus, strategy and damn luck. "The names of the shows were a big help in our marketing efforts. In fact the names did half our job. Also we focussed our entire efforts on just these two shows. This was not the case in the past when we had to concentrate on as many as seven shows at the same time."



According to him, when the pilot of Lost was shown it was dismissed as being more of a TV movie. Since it was important to understand what the show was about the marketing team met with programme executives as well as the creators of the show.

The marketing team found that the core essence of Lost was mystery. What is this island that the plane crash survivors are in? What are their backgrounds and what will they do now? That was when organic ideas for marketing started to flow. It was important for marketing endeavours to arouse the curiosity of viewers. The promotional activities needed to feel real in a surrealistic way.

The key audience for the promotional activities was the 18 - 49 age group. The campaign started with a series of teasers called A Missing Person. In addition to using on air trailers, missing person posters were put in public places like groceries. This was a unique person to person campaign. There were spots on radio as well. In the middle of a radio show, listeners would suddenly hear static and someone talking about being stranded. If they wanted to know they could visit the site This campaign ran for three weeks.

Closer to the airing bottles were put on beaches with a message inside "from Oceanic Flight 815". Of course, being environmentally responsible, ABC sent its teams to clean up the mess later. The aim was to get people to speak about a show that was yet to go on air. Even when the show went on air Benson said that the channel tried to sell the show as if nobody had seen it. That meant that each TVC brought them up to speed on the previous episode and what they could now expect.

The TVC for the second episode spoke about the praise the show received from critics. Another TVC said that on the next episode the survivors would find out who else was on the island. In fact the beach campaign was so good that the bottles sold on EBay for more money than what ABC bought for them, Benson claimed.

The show has completed its first season and will be back in September. However, the channel has created an Oceanic Airlines site. This is where a rich online experience has been created for fans. If fans sift though the site, treasures are found.


Meanwhile, Desperate Housewives also presented a complex marketing challenge. Initially Benson's team started selling the show as being dark and mysterious. After all a suicide happens in the first five minutes. However they withdrew the decision as they realised that the housewife would not be drawn by such a tactic. It would not provide a hook.



Instead after talks it was decided that the show should be pushed as a fun, sexy soap. At the same time the audience was not spoon fed. After all, if they are given all the details of the show and they do not like it then they will not watch it. Therefore the challenge was to put together clips that embodied the spirit of the show. Besides the usual on-air and online mechanisms the broadcaster used the tagline 'Everybody has a little dirty laundry' to good effect. This ad came on the sides of laundry bags at various laundry mats and got greater buzz than the on-air and online ads.

Asked why Desperate Housewives has done so well Benson says, "Our research team says that it is due to chemistry of the four leading ladies as well as the related stories. I say that it provides viewers with one hour of great escape which few shows on American television do. Our marketing team constantly challenge their own thinking. Therefore it is important not to be afraid to challenge yourself. Focus and simplification will lead to rewards. It is also important that you do not spread your messages too thin."

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