Mixed signals for TV sponsorship

Sponsorship can be an effective way to reach consumers, particularly as spot ads are losing impact because of growing channel diversity. But brands should treat it with care

It is 20 years since the first commercial television sponsorship deal was signed – between Budweiser and Channel 4 for its American football coverage – and while sponsorship has become an established marketing tool, UK viewers are still split on whether they like brand involvement in programmes and events.

Sponsorship is increasingly seen by brand owners as a way of communicating with consumers, either through television or big events, without using traditional advertising. The latest TGI data shows that younger consumers, who have grown up with sponsorship, are the most likely to notice brand involvement in events and also to associate products with the events or TV programmes that they sponsor.

Encouragingly, men are almost twice as likely as women to buy brands that sponsor sports events and teams. Predictably, the relationship between buying products and sponsorship is even stronger among respondents who watch the most TV, and weaker among those who watch the least. TGI believes this link with television viewing gives a downmarket skew to the profile of those who have a positive opinion of sponsorship.

When this data is cross-analysed with other attitudes to marketing, it shows that respondents who are positive about sponsorship also believe in buying products made in the UK and will buy things that are recommended by an expert. They also react more positively towards well-known brands rather than own-label and are more likely to buy from organisations whose ethics they agree with. This shows which sort of respondents are most influenced by sponsorship and what messages they might be most responsive to.

Despite mixed consumer attitudes towards sponsorship, the TGI data shows that sponsorships can be successful. For instance, TGI found that the number of respondents who are likely to buy products from a sponsor and who are also committed viewers of The Simpsons grew from seven per cent to 12 per cent between 1995 and 1997.

Domino’s Pizza tapped into this market when its began sponsoring The Simpsons on Sky One, after which the number of respondents agreeing they would buy from Domino’s shot up to 19 per cent and peaked at 27 per cent in 2000. Although this has now dropped to 21 per cent, it is still significantly higher than during the pre-sponsorship days. In addition, the number of adults who are both committed viewers of The Simpsons and recent consumers of the sponsor’s product has doubled.

In the case of Coronation Street, which has been sponsored by Cadbury’s for ten years, the number of adults recorded by TGI as specifically choosing to watch the programme has fallen from 20.6 million in 1994 to 17.8 million over the past ten years. However, the number of viewers who are consumers of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Flake or Roses has remained stable at about 11.5 million. This means the proportion of loyal viewers who consume Cadbury’s products has increased from 56 per cent to 65 per cent during the period.

But such success does not mean that sponsorship can become a real alternative to spot advertising because in terms of consumer attitude, any move towards this would be resisted. Respondents who have the most positive attitude to sponsorship – of TV and off-screen events – also tend to have positive attitudes about advertising generally. They see it as both entertainment and a source of information. By contrast, respondents who say they do not notice sponsorship are ten to 20 per cent more likely than average to say that they feel bombarded by advertising. They describe advertising as annoying, devious and a waste of their time.

This means there is a danger, particularly in the case of TV, of viewers being put off programmes by overt sponsorship messages. However, if they can screen out the messages, for instance through personal video recorders, they will still be happy to watch the programme. The data shows that 75 per cent of people fast-forward through ads when watching a taped programme, rising to almost 85 per cent among Sky Plus viewers.

As TV audiences continue to fragment, marketers will have to consider using tools such as advertising-funded programming and product placement to target viewers who avoid TV ads. Product placement, in particular, is already big business in the US and in the film industry. There is hope for marketers and advertising agencies that rules governing this will be relaxed, as Ofcom chief executive Stephen Carter said he would back a change in regulation on product placement in a speech at the Incorporated Society of British Advertiser’s conference (MW March 10).

Incorporating commercial messages through either sponsorship or product placement may well test viewers’ loyalty, at least among those who deliberately avoid ads. But in the changing TV environment, and with the BBC remaining sponsorship-free, marketers will need to find innovative ways to reach these ad avoiders, who will not be won over easily.

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