By BOB TEDESCHI
Published: October 15, 2007
The New York Times
Can young Ashley find success and happiness in the big city? Will the dashing Eric win her heart? Can she make consumers buy more Tide detergent?
In “Crescent Heights,” the four main characters are, front to back, Erin Cahill as Ashley (AMTC Grad), Heather Hemmens as Liz, Alain Uly as Eddie and Adam Grimes as Will. Episodes are three minutes long.
In “Crescent Heights,” some Tide peeks out of a laundry basket. Stay tuned. Or logged on.
The company that brought soap operas to radio, then television, Procter & Gamble, is trying the same strategy online with “Crescent Heights,” a new show intended to reach young viewers where they watch the most — their PCs and cellphones.
The series, which is more sitcom than soap, focuses on a recent college graduate, Ashley, who moves to Los Angeles from Wisconsin to start a career in public relations, and her emerging circle of friends and romantic interests. Written, directed and produced by Hollywood veterans, the three-minute episodes are as polished as any television sitcom.
While the Tide logo makes occasional appearances, clothes are front and center. In one episode, Ashley attends a party and is horrified that her bright yellow dress is the only color in a sea of black, but the dress helps get her noticed by Eric, who plays the early foil to Ashley’s other suitor, Will.
“We want to speak to people about more than just laundry,” said Kevin Crociata, Tide’s associate marketing director. “We provide benefits to the fabrics she wears on daily basis. They have much more meaning.”
The initiative follows that of other marketers and retailers who have found that, especially among their younger customers, sometimes the best way to advertise is to, well, not advertise.
“The product message is there, but it’s not as direct,” said Mr. Crociata. “If the content wasn’t entertaining, we wouldn’t be successful.”
“Crescent Heights,” which Tide is promoting on its television commercials, print ads and packaging, is too new to affect sales. “The reaction so far has been great,” Mr. Crociata said. “We feel like we’ve hit on something that’s entertaining and, in our testing, has shown it’s influencing purchase intent.”
Mr. Crociata said the series, which was taped in an initial set of 10 segments, will help Procter & Gamble evaluate its broader strategy regarding online entertainment. At least one other Procter & Gamble brand, Always feminine care products, has rolled out a scripted online entertainment series.
Procter & Gamble has a long history with such projects, having pioneered radio soap operas at the dawn of that medium, as well as televised dramas. “Guiding Light,” TV’s longest running soap, began on radio 70 years ago, and was first televised in 1955. The “Light” in its title is a reference to candles, which, along with soap, made up Procter & Gamble’s first product line in 1837.
Mr. Crociata said Tide’s executives did not rely on Procter & Gamble Productions Inc., which still produces “Guiding Light,” to deliver “Crescent Heights.” Rather, it used GoTV Networks, a video production company based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., that has also developed technology to create the show in collaboration with P.& G. and distribute shows online and on mobile phones.
Chris Greenleaf, GoTV’s vice president for entertainment, declined to say how much Tide or any of the company’s other clients pay to develop an online series. “Scripted series are more expensive than reality TV, and fewer characters is less expensive,” he said. The show contains only four main characters.
Despite the costs, Mr. Greenleaf said marketers increasingly are developing original series to distribute online and over mobile phones. “Just from us personally, you’ll see a lot more of this in the next year,” he said. “Advertisers are aware that this is where a lot of the activity is, among their demographics.”
Not all marketers have scored successes with online series. Executives at Anheuser-Busch recently said the company would continue its BudTV.com initiative, which features dozens of original programs, despite disappointing viewership since its February introduction.
Procter & Gamble’s chief competitor, Unilever, has fared better in developing multiple series, having created original online programs for its Degree deodorant, Dove soap and Caress skin products, among others. The company’s most successful online entertainment asset, however, revolves around Spraychel, the animated mascot for Unilever’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! brand (at TasteYouLove.com).
Spraychel currently anchors the company’s third online series, “Sprays in the City,” in which she and other vegetables and toppings vie for romantic and gastronomic supremacy. Javier Martin, Unilever’s brand manager for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, said this year’s Spraychel series has been viewed more than one million times online, with visitors watching for more than six minutes. (Episodes last about three minutes.)
In surveys, Mr. Martin said, viewers were “significantly” more likely to purchase the product than they were before watching the shows.
Retailers, too, are suddenly becoming sitcom producers. American Eagle Outfitters, which is based in Pittsburgh, in August released “It’s a Mall World,” a series of webisodes directed by Milo Ventimiglia, star of the television series “Heroes.” The series revolves around five twentysomethings who work in a mall, one as an American Eagle greeter.
In seeking an offline distribution partner for the series, American Eagle struck gold in MTV, which agreed this fall to run “Mall World” episodes during the first three-minute commercial spot of its “Real World: Sydney” series on Wednesday nights. In exchange, American Eagle agreed to pay MTV an undisclosed sum, and run “Real World” on screens in its 972 stores.
Kathy Savitt, American Eagle’s executive vice president for marketing, said the Web site’s visits jump every Wednesday night by more than 20 percent. More than 75 percent of the new visitors who come to the site to watch the show also purchase items, she added.
Ms. Savitt said the “Mall World” campaign is an adjunct to other marketing approaches.
“While our customers really appreciated MTV programming, they were, through TiVo and other devices, disintermediating a lot of the spots we ran on the network,” she said. “With this, we suddenly feel like we’re truly creating a strategy that’s responsive to the way our customers actually consume media.”
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