'House' gets Fox's guerrilla ad treatment

Hugh Laurie proposed summer campaign idea

"Snakes on a cane." Sound familiar?

Perhaps you've seen the flashes of a caduceus employing a cane instead of a staff while watching commercial breaks on Fox. Or seen the symbol drawn with chalk on New York streets. Or even clicked through to the phrase's cryptic Web site.

Fox is set to announce what many who've spied the symbol already suspect: It's been a summerlong guerrilla marketing promotion for Season 6 of "House" in the fall.

Yet few would guess that the idea came from "House" star Hugh Laurie. In the spring, the actor sketched the symbol and showed it to the network, whose marketing department ran with the idea as an innovative teaser campaign.

"Teaser campaigns are usually reserved for Year 1 shows," Joe Earley, Fox's executive vp marketing and communications. "Rarely would you do something like this for a show that's already established."

"House" is set to return Sept. 21 and likely will continue its reign as the network's highest-rated drama. Usually networks reserve their most creative marketing efforts for new shows, but Fox elected to buck tradition to promote its veteran hit. But with competitors launching three new medical dramas this season, "House" could benefit from some extra attention.

The first part of the campaign just spread the symbol without any context. The second phase added a countdown clock to the "House" premiere date on the campaign's Web site and five-second "subliminal" ads during Fox programming, while remaining cryptic and not directly showing a connection to "House." One ad was a full-page placement in a major publication without a title or tune-in date.

Online viewers have made myriad guesses about the symbol -- from being something related to the president's health care plan to a campaign for a new movie.

"We were really able to hit a wide range of people," Earley said. " 'House' doesn't need a teaser campaign, but given how brilliant it is, it's intrigued people in a new way."

The crucial part is making sure that viewers make the connection between the teaser "snakes on a cane" imagery and "House." So Fox is set to ramp up the next phase of its campaign: In addition to ads on the air and off, the network will have a vintage ambulance driving around Los Angeles with the symbol and tune-in information for the show.