Buying television advertising is a lot like going fishing. Every once in a while you drop a hook over the side and actually land a big one.
Consider the new Bravo reality series “Below Deck.” A takeoff on the British TV series “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Below Deck” chronicles the campy adventures of the crew of the 164-foot M/Y Honor and their charter guests. As with the fictional series, the program provides a voyeuristic look at the lack of “class” both above and below deck.
With the first season of “Below Deck” now history, what can we make of this show as an advertising vehicle for marine businesses and as a marketing platform for the boating industry?
What we know for certain is that its audience grew steadily from week to week. According to Bravo, “Below Deck” nearly doubled its audience since the M/Y Honor first left the dock in St. Martin in early July.
Bravo boasts that the audience for this eight-episode series climbed from 1.1 million viewers when it was first launched to 1.8 million during its last episode — an audience by all accounts larger than the paid circulation of all recreational boating magazines in the United States combined.
Based on the success of the first season, “Below Deck” has been renewed for a second season.
Not since “The Love Boat” set sail and the S.S. Minnow shipwrecked on “Gilligan’s Island” somewhere in the Pacific Ocean nearly 50 years ago has a nautical setting figured so prominently in a major commercial network TV series.
And not since the marine industry failed to get behind “Boatworks,” a well-regarded PBS TV series that chronicled the boating lifestyle in the mid-1990s, has an opportunity to market to a national audience been so overlooked.
The fact is that dozens of national advertisers hawking name-brand products and services have climbed aboard the “Below Deck” bandwagon. An analysis of just the first and last hourlong episodes reveals that 49 separate advertisers bought 15- and 30-second spots on these two episodes alone. Nearly all of these commercials were from top-quality national accounts. Only two of these commercials could be considered direct-response, local or low-budget ads, a surprise, considering that it’s a first-season reality show on the ninth-largest network.
National marketing and advertising professionals who spend boatloads of money to get their wares in front of the right demographics must have seen something in “Below Deck” to throw money at the program before it aired. I suspect that that even Howard (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”) Beale of the classic film noir “Network” might have considered the “Below Deck” “plot” a bit of a prime-time programming gamble.
That said, sponsors for the first episode included carmakers Lincoln, Ford and Mazda, Smirnoff vodka, Malibu rum and Woodbridge wines, promos for the films “Red 2” and “The Heat,” Taco Bell (four spots) and Subway, mattress makers Sealy and Tempur-Pedic, Priceline, Verizon, Coppertone, Bic razors, Samsung refrigerators, Liberty Mutual insurance and a host of snack foods. Only two low-budget commercials for a book and an ambulance chaser stood out from the crowd of well-respected advertisers.
As the series played out during the summer a number of additional sponsors lined up to underwrite it. By the time the last episode aired the sponsors included Toyota, Lincoln, Kia (albeit a local ad), Smirnoff, promos for five films — “Blue Jasmine,” “The Family,” “Getaway,” “Prisoners” and “Battle of the Year,” Starbucks (four spots) and Olive Garden, Cover Girl, Garnier and Clairol, Samsung, TJ Maxx, the Leukemia Society, more snack foods and one local commercial for new upscale homes.
Advertisers must have liked what they saw both in terms of content and audience demographics because the number, variety and quality of commercials aired during the series remained constant throughout its eight-week run. No direct-response or as-seen-on-TV commercials were on board to remind viewers that they were, in fact, watching low-budget reality TV.
So why has the relatively affluent boating and fishing audience of 80 million Americans, who the NMMA tells us goes boating each year, always been relegated to the backwaters of the television universe on Saturday or Sunday mornings on the most obscure local and regional cable channels?
Broadly speaking, I suspect “Deep Throat’s” admonition to Watergate reporter Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” to “follow the money” may shed some light on the problem.
The prevailing opinion within the marine marketing community is that national television is just too expensive and insufficiently targeted for boatbuilders, engine and accessory manufacturers. Many marine marketers probably would agree with the axiom that like politics, all marine advertising must be local in order to be effective.
Their bottom line is that the return on investment for the financial risk undertaken is just not worth it. Besides, they’ve been advertising for years with so and so on such and such a platform, and why change now?
Although it is certainly true that advertising on top-rated network TV programs is expensive, the advent of cable television serving targeted markets with relatively low-budget reality shows tied to integrated websites with full video repeats of original programming is much less expensive and may well be a game changer. The future is here, as many more potential consumers are no longer tied to the tube and can watch these programs on their smartphones and tablets at any time and any place they wish.
Reality shows, such as “Below Deck,” also provide numerous opportunities for product placement and building brand awareness. Just think of the exposure that Apple gets every time you see an Apple laptop on TV or in a movie.
And although it’s not exactly “recreational boating,” “Below Deck” does paint a picture of a nautical lifestyle that many non-boating viewers may find aspirational. Given the marine industry’s stagnation, selling the dream may be as important at this point as selling the product.
Should the marine industry take the plunge and tie up with “Below Deck”? According to the NMMA, boating alone generated $91 billion in sales and services in 2011, employing 963,000 Americans who earned $39 billion. If just 5 percent of gross sales were dedicated to advertising and marketing, the industry should have more than $4.5 billion to spend on pitching their products, promoting the boating lifestyle and growing boating on a variety of platforms, including network TV.
But trying to find out where and how much the recreational boating and fishing industries actually spend on advertising and marketing is like trying to count the number of fishes in the sea. “I couldn’t even fathom a guess,” says Carl Blackwell, the NMMA’s marketing chief.
Blackwell, who also serves as president of Grow Boating Inc., says he was never contacted to support, sponsor or advertise on “Below Deck.” As Grow Boating’s mission is to generate awareness and participation in the boating lifestyle, perhaps it’s time for the marine industry to drop a line to the television industry and say, “Ahoy, mate.”
Haven’t seen “Below Deck” yet? Here’s a link to the program’s first episode: http://www.bravotv.com/below-deck/season-1/videos/season-1-episode-1. For sponsorship or product placement opportunities contact www.51minds.com. For more information on advertising on “Below Deck” contact Linda Ruffins, director, Bravo Sales, at (312) 970-2114 or email@example.com, or Steve Horn for digital sales at (312) 836-3162 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.
This article originallt appeared in the October 2013 issue.