By Burt Helm It's just four minutes into an Apr. 4 episode of The Martha Stewart Show, and Donna Brock from Cleveland, Tex., is on the line asking for advice on how to clean her bathroom. Simple, Stewart says: "Disposable toilet scrubbers, from Scotch-Brite." She plucks a scrubber wand from a box and goes to town on a toilet in the middle of the studio. Watching from home, Brock notes how easy the wand is to use under the bowl's rim.
A segment about a disposable toilet brush might seem a trifle d?class? for Stewart, who built her aspirational brand on meticulously crafted decorations and gourmet meals. But there's a backstory: 3M (MMM), which owns the Scotch-Brite brand, helped develop and pay for the five-minute segment as part of a sweeping, multi-million dollar advertising deal.
Television has long worked products into dramatic story lines--and more so since advertisers began fleeing to the Web. Now such "brand integrations" are becoming common on daytime talk shows. Who better to sing the merits of a product than the beloved hosts of The Martha Stewart Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, or The View? To a greater or lesser degree, all are working product mentions into their shows in exchange for flat fees or a big ad buy.
But no one is pushing the envelope more energetically than Stewart. Yes, she is walking a fine line by calling herself "America's most trusted guide to stylish living" while taking money to promote products. But she is breathtakingly candid about the practice and contends this is simply business as usual nowadays. "I like to inform people about good things," she says. "And many of these products that are good things might not be known by a lot of people. So why not integrate them, and get paid for it?" As long as she sticks to promoting products she really believes in, Stewart argues, it won't dilute her brand or abuse the trust of her 1.7 million viewers.
It's not hard to see why Stewart & Co. love ad integrations. Because the show currently lags behind competing talk shows in the ratings, it can command only $10,000 on average for a traditional 30-second spot, vs. as much as $18,000 at The View or about $100,000 over at The Oprah Winfrey Show.
The hook for advertisers: Buy at least $250,000 worth of 30-second spots and get the chance to help create a branded segment on the show, not to mention work your messages into Martha's other properties, such as her magazines or Sirius radio channel. Usually, such segments are free with large ad buys. When the airtime is sold out (which it has been since December for the 2006-07 season), the show will also sell branded segments à la carte. For $100,000 you get "a short verbal and visual" of the product, says Liz Koman, senior vice-president for advertising sales at the broadcast unit of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. (MSO) (MSLO). A two-minute-plus segment that works in an advertiser's talking points starts at $250,000.
Advertisers are understandably enthusiastic. Last year, nearly a fifth of episodes contained segments that were sponsored and shaped by major advertisers, including 3M, L'Oréal (LRLCY), Kraft Foods (KFT), and Georgia-Pacific. (The number probably would have been even higher had the show not imposed a cap on them.) "When you get an endorsement from someone like Martha Stewart, moms in our target take cues from her," says Erik Sjogren, senior brand manager of Dixie, talking about a segment in which Martha recommended Dixie Cups as a way to keep kids healthy. "For us it was a slam dunk."
It typically takes three weeks for advertisers and MSLO to put together a segment. A product may be used as an ingredient in a cooking segment, as the focus of a giveaway, or in response to viewer mail. After MSLO decides to include a product and determines how it will appear, it asks the client to supply two or three talking points.
Last fall, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) wanted Stewart to mention three things about its Photosmart R817 camera when it was featured in a segment on "How to take a picture." HP wanted her to mention the name of the camera, how it differed from other models, and that it would be an ideal holiday gift. Stewart did HP one better: She covered all three points and also held up the user manual, according to Karen Cage, a marketer at HP. "Martha always overdelivers," she says.
To reinforce the message, advertisers typically use their talking points in 30-second ads run directly after the product placement segments. On Mar. 15 the show ran a 2-minute, 40-second segment in which Stewart explored how Dixie cup styles have changed in the past 80 years. During the segment, she encouraged parents to "teach kids good hygiene by having a dispenser right in your kitchen." As the segment ended, a Dixie logo appeared and a voice intoned: "This segment was brought to you by the maker of Dixie." Then came a 30-second Dixie spot focused on hygiene-challenged plastic cups.
THE FIT MATTERS
How much the advertiser spends throughout the MSLO empire, which includes a Web site, radio station, TV show, and magazines, can affect what the company is willing to do. "One of the first things Martha will say to me is: 'How much is it worth to the company? How important is it to the company?'" says Koman. "That's important to us." Even so, which products get used and how they're worked into the show depends on "fit," says Koman. "It needs to fit into themes like entertaining and housekeeping, in a way that informs our viewers."
Some brands require workarounds to be consistent with what Stewart stands for. Consider an integration in the works for a butter substitute. Stewart loves butter, and she has long advocated that people eat smaller portions of rich foods rather than ample portions of a "diet" version. So Koman is considering having Dr. Brent Ridge, a health expert who loves the butter substitute, join Martha for a segment on healthy eating. He could acknowledge that Martha loves butter, Koman says, but also recommend the substitute for people with high cholesterol (she notes that the segment is still contingent on Stewart's approval).
The Scotch-Brite toilet scrubber segment, which is part of the biggest multimedia deal MSLO has ever done, required similar adjustments. To do the segment, the production team sorted through viewer correspondence (Stewart receives about 1 million pieces a year) until they found a letter that fit the bill. After getting in touch with Donna Brock, they briefed her to speak concisely during the segment and to ask good lead-in questions about the scrubber.
But there was a problem: Stewart hadn't used the scrubber before the segment was taped and wasn't sure she actually would ever want to use it personally. "I could see it being used elsewhere, and it works very well," says Stewart, "but it was disposable, and it's kind of wasteful." So Stewart decided to reconfigure the first part of the segment. She would start off by highly recommending a Scotch-Brite product she really did use and love, their trademark yellow sponge with the green abrasive backing. "Then I said: 'This is the newest product from the Scotch-Brite people,'" and favorably compared some of its features to the sponge. "So that got it into the program very nicely."
Some brands, meanwhile, are completely off-limits, Koman says. A diet pill company called LA Weight Loss, for instance, is one of the show's biggest advertisers. Hard to square a diet pill with gourmet living.
Helm is Marketing Editor for BusinessWeek