L'Oreal exit leaves smudge on Oscars

ABC still needs 6-8 spots for Sunday's telecast

On the red carpet, austerity is generally about as well received as a surprise cameo appearance by Robert Blake, and yet a grim economic outlook could cause the mood at this year's Academy Awards to be as subdued as the 2002 ceremony.

With just a week to go before ABC hosts its 34th consecutive Oscars telecast, the network is scrambling to find replacement sponsors, as one of the program's greatest endemic categories has all but abdicated. Sources last week said that L'Oreal Paris will sit out Sunday's spectacle, leaving ABC without a beauty brand.

Besides losing a backer with deep pockets -- since 2004, L'Oreal's Academy Awards spend has added up to $40.9 million, per TNS Media Intelligence -- ABC is heading into the week with a significant chunk of unsold inventory. While the network would not comment on how many avails it had on its hands, as of Friday, media buyers estimated that ABC still needed to move 6-8 spots, or about 12% of the time that would constitute a sellout.

Last year, L'Oreal bought 180 seconds of air time, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the second-largest investment behind General Motors (210 seconds). At an average cost of $1.7 million, the two clients combined to invest $22.1 million in last year's Oscars. (After a decade of sponsorship, a span in which the automaker spent around $104.9 million, GM in October announced it was backing out of this year's show.) Neither ABC nor L'Oreal would comment on the matter.

Thus far, it would appear that a replacement for the L'Oreal business has yet to be nailed down, though some buyers believe that the show may have aged beyond the reach of the category. "A lot of cosmetics companies reach out to younger women, and those viewers are leaving in droves," said Shari Anne Brill, senior vp/director at Carat.

Meanwhile, ABC was able to sign Hyundai as a stand-in for GM, locking in the Korean automaker for seven spots, including one 60-second ad. This month, Hyundai purchased time on its second consecutive Super Bowl broadcast, running a pair of 30-second spots for its 2010 Genesis coupe and a third ad to promote its "Hyundai Assurance" plan, an incentive program that allows the consumer to return his new car to the dealer in the event that he loses his job.

Audi will also steer its way into Oscar households next week, although the German car manufacturer is limiting itself to a local buy. Viewers in 18 leading DMAs (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Phoenix, Miami and Minneapolis) will see two Audi spots (a :30 and a :60) introducing the new compact crossover Q5. Audi will also appear in the pre-show Barbara Walters Special, as well as during ABC's red-carpet coverage. Last year, Audi made a far less expansive buy, doling out for pick-up in just three markets.

As ABC works to get the last of the Oscar spots off its plate, the net has reworked its rate card, cutting around 18% off its original ask with a new base rate of $1.4 million. In addition to a moribund ad market, ABC has had to contend with the issue of last year's historically low ratings. Per Nielsen, some 32 million viewers tuned in for the 80th Academy Awards, down from 39.9 million in 2007.

"Besides the ratings issue, the fact is that advertisers are really taking a long look at how they're investing their marketing dollars, and discount or no, this is still a lot of money," said Jon Swallen, senior vp research at TNS Media Intelligence. "Even a reduced price tag is still a barrier to entry."

Swallen estimates that ABC could bring in around $68 million with this year's Oscars broadcast, a 15% decline from last year's estimated $81.1 million haul. "The most-watched Oscars in the last 15 years was in 1998, when 'Titanic' won everything," Swallen said. "You had record box-office and that drove the ratings way up (to 55.2 million viewers). This year, we aren't seeing that."

Although Swallen suspects that this year's Oscars could deliver a 5% greater audience, as consumers continue to turn toward cheaper forms of entertainment, some observers believe that the entire awards-show genre is starting to wither. Brad Adgate, senior vp/director of research at Horizon Media, blames audience churn on glut and tedium.

"The shows are too long, and too much time is spent on the less prestigious categories," Adgate said. Moreover, the median age of the major trophy broadcasts has risen as younger viewers turn to digital-media platforms.

"The Academy Awards has a median age of 49.5 years, and that's on the wrong side of the key (18-49) demo for marketers looking to reach the target," Adgate said. Case in point: A year ago, ABC's Oscars coverage averaged a record low 10.7 rating among 18-49s, down 24% from the 2007 broadcast.

For all the uncertainty, ABC has retained a good number of high-end sponsors, including Coca-Cola and JCPenney. The beverage giant will roll out creative for its new Fresh Diet Coke product, while the retailer will hype duds from its portfolio of exclusive designers (Nicole Miller, Bisou Bisou by Michele Bohbot, etc.). This year marks JCPenney's eighth consecutive year as the exclusive retail sponsor of the Academy Awards. Per TNS Media Intelligence, the company has spent $59.1 million on Oscars ad time since 2001.

Adgate said that the hubbub that surrounds the Oscars every year from a marketing standpoint suffers from an unfair comparison to winter's other major broadcast showcase.
"Everybody always calls the Oscars 'the Super Bowl for Women.' The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl for women," Adgate said. "More women watched this year's game than all the people who watched last year's Oscars, male or female. If you're looking for a female audience, maybe you need to start looking at Tom Brady instead of Tom Cruise."
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