DECADES after advertisers produced TV series like “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars” and viewers watched Barbara Walters and Ed McMahon deliver Alpo commercials on “Today” and “The Tonight Show,” marketers of beer and pet food are developing programs that are centered on their products.
Dos Equis beer will present a reality series on the Mojo HD cable network that will chronicle the search for an assistant to a character who is featured in the brand’s advertising campaign, a person of wealth and taste known as the Most Interesting Man in the World.
And the Meow Mix line of cat food is underwriting a game show for GSN, the Game Show Network cable channel, that will test how well cat owners understand their pets — and vice versa. With a nod to predecessors like “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” and “Coke Time With Eddie Fisher,” the Meow Mix program will be titled the “Meow Mix Game Show.”
The Meow Mix and Dos Equis ventures are additional examples of a throwback trend that Madison Avenue is embracing as ardently as it once did the three-martini lunch. The trend is called branded entertainment, or branded content, and it is intended to embed a product in the plot of a show, hoping to making it more memorable than it would be if it merely made a brief appearance in a scene.
Unlike a product pitched in a commercial, which can be skipped, zipped through or zapped, a product peddled through branded entertainment is almost always noticed because it is an intrinsic part of the show.
“Branded entertainment brings the experience of the brand to the viewer, to the consumer, and does not rely on just a commercial,” said Mitch Sheiner, vice president and associate media director at the Dos Equis media agency, MediaVest in New York, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group division of the Publicis Groupe.
“Putting something on TV is easy,” Mr. Sheiner said. “Putting something on TV that’s effective and engaging and builds awareness — that’s the key.”
The Dos Equis series, called “MIA: Most Interesting Assistant,” is to run for five consecutive weeks on Mojo HD, starting in late August or early September. Those interested in being considered for the real job of being the assistant to an imaginary character can fill out an application at a Web site (staythirstymyfriends.com/jobs), which is named after the theme of the Dos Equis ad campaign, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
The “Meow Mix Game Show” is scheduled for taping in late August, to be shown Nov. 15. Auditions are being held in eight cities for cat owners and their pets. The first will be held in Chicago on Saturday, and auditions will continue through early August in cities that include New York, Denver and Los Angeles.
Big cups bearing the brand’s logo will be on the judges’ tables at the auditions. The gesture is intended as a wink at the branded Coca-Cola cups that are omnipresent on “American Idol” on Fox, said Joe Tuza, vice president for marketing at the Meow Mix parent, Del Monte Foods in San Francisco.
“We like being able to be developers of the content,” Mr. Tuza said, “versus being a sponsor of a show or just running a 30-second commercial.”
At the same time, “we’re not making every question on the show have ‘Meow Mix’ as an answer,” he added. “The trick is to make sure there’s a fine balance between self-serving and having content that’s interesting to the audience.”
That is also a goal of the Dos Equis effort, according to executives at the Heineken USA division of Heineken, which markets the brand in the United States.
“As we explore branded content,” said Kheri Holland Tillman, vice president for marketing for the Dos Equis and Amstel Light brands at Heineken USA in White Plains, the most important issue is to determine “how you get your points across without hitting viewers on the head with the brand.”
A decision was made to orient the series so that “we’re using the Most Interesting Man in the World to reach our consumer,” she added, “as opposed to the brand itself.”
Executives at the networks that will carry the Dos Equis and Meow Mix programs say they welcome the emphasis on entertainment.
“That is, from the beginning, our biggest challenge and our biggest focus, to have a show that’s interesting to our viewers, even if they’re not familiar with the Dos Equis campaign,” said Emilio Nunez, vice president for programming at Mojo HD in New York, which is owned by a consortium that includes Comcast and Cox Communications.
“If there’s a Dos Equis in every shot, no one will be happy,” Mr. Nunez said. “If we do not inundate people with Dos Equis messaging, we would have accomplished something.”
Jamie Roberts, senior vice president for programming at GSN in Santa Monica, Calif., owned by Liberty Media and Sony Pictures Entertainment, said: “The key thing is, it’s got to be entertaining. If I’m not entertaining the viewer, it’s failing Meow Mix and GSN.”
Each of the five episodes of the Dos Equis series will run 30 minutes. The host will be Shannon Cook, an actress and news personality, and production is under way. There will be commercials during each episode, Mr. Nunez said, but, of course, no spots for rival beers will be accepted.
The “Meow Mix Game Show” is scheduled as a single show. That format echoes a previous foray by Meow Mix into branded entertainment, when it produced a show called “Meow TV” in 2003 for the Oxygen cable network.
The sole commercials during the game show will be from Meow Mix, Mr. Tuza of Del Monte Brands said, but rather than sell the product, they are meant to “educate you on how to be a better pet parent and how to better understand your cat.”
Those commercials will also run on GSN from August through the premiere of “Meow Mix Game Show.”
As is often the case with branded-content initiatives, the shows have multiple parents.
The Meow Mix show involves, in addition to Del Monte Foods and GSN, five other partners.
Grand Central Marketing, which has worked on several branded-content concepts for Meow Mix, conceived of the show and is an executive producer along with David Doyle, a former executive at the Animal Planet cable network.
TracyLocke, part of the Omnicom Group, is integrating content related to “Meow Mix Game Show” into other marketing for the brand. TracyLocke is the creator of the current Meow Mix ad campaign, which carries the theme “Think like a cat.”
Starcom, which is also part of the Starcom MediaVest Group, made the deal with GSN in its role as the Meow Mix agency for media buying. And Agency.com, a unit of Omnicom, is creating content related to the game show for the Meow Mix Web site (meowmix.com).
The Dos Equis series involves, in addition to Heineken USA, MediaVest and Mojo HD, two agencies that are owned by Havas: Euro RSCG Worldwide, which is creating the campaign featuring the Interesting Man, and Euro RSCG 4D, which is bringing the campaign to the Internet with the stay-thirsty Web site.
Sony Pictures Television in New York, also part of Sony, which is the national advertising sales representative for Mojo HD, was another partner.
“The brand, the message, the programming fits the channel,” said Amy Carney, president for advertiser sales at Sony Pictures Television in New York, because Mojo HD, like Dos Equis, is aimed at men in their mid-20s and into their 30s.
“The idea is not to make a 30-minute infomercial,” she added, “because that would not be interesting to the viewer.”
Notice that the people involved with a beer whose character is the Most Interesting Man in the World have figured out a way to brand their sentences by using the word “interesting” a lot.