ITV must beware sponsor overkill

For Marketing Week readers 1997 has been the year sponsorship took its rightful place in the marketing mix. Nike signed up the Brazilian national football team for 250m over ten years, Cadbury renewed its mould-breaking Coronation Street deal and BAT decided it liked Formula One sponsorship so much it bought the Tyrrell racing team.

The Toyota deal – the car company gains bumper-to-bumper coverage around ITV programmes over the New Year – is another significant step for sponsorship. Compared with some investments, it sounds financially insignificant: a mere 18m over five years. But that is partly the point: value for money makes sponsorship idents an increasingly attractive alternative to conventional commercials for some advertisers.

Note the ‘for some’ proviso. We all know the limitations of broadcast sponsorship – or should do given the frequency with which the ITC reiterates them. Advertisers can’t show specific branded products, can’t encourage sales, can’t even allude to their TV advertising. That sounds a formidable battery of restrictions. All the same, it’s funny how we remember a stream of creative treatments from the Beamish Inspector Morse days to Doritos jaw-dropping sponsorship of ITV’s film premieres rather better than the majority of commercials that have run over the same period.

Therein lies Toyota’s cut-price opportunity. Of course, it will need to capture viewers’ attention in the first place by elegant creative variation. But what will matter in the longer run is the cumulative effect of 32-and-a-half hours of bumper credits at new year, every year, for the next five years: a saturation far in excess of any commercial’s impacts. Toyota won’t exactly be hamstrung by ITC restrictions on specific product references, either. New year precedes the second most important month in the car manufacturers’ calendar. Anyone looking to buy will be in a receptive mood. And it will be astonishing if the advance publicity accompanying the sponsorship coup has failed to communicate to them the arrival at that time of Toyota’s new model, the Avensis.

Yet the significance of this and other packages is only slowly dawning on the advertising industry. It persists, by and large, in viewing sponsorship as a devalued version of spot advertising. It chooses to dwell on sponsorship’s miniscule portion of overall revenue, rather than the fact it is growing so rapidly. A dangerous complacency.

The underlying trend is surely what is of most importance here, not least to the integrity of the ITV brand itself. That trend is towards advertisers dominating more and more television ‘events’, such as New Year and the World Cup (snapped up by General Motors). What at first will seem pleasing extra revenue for ITV may end up being a counter-productive embarrassment. There must be a point at which conventional advertisers become mutinous about the clutter they have to cut through and, in a more general way, seriously question the rationale of their TV ad spend.

Cover Story, page 22

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