Television

One-hour commercials?

No Boundaries takes Ford where no sponsor has dared go before

ROBIN ROBERTS March 4 2002
Television

One-hour commercials?

No Boundaries takes Ford where no sponsor has dared go before

ROBIN ROBERTS March 4 2002

One-hour commercials?

Television

No Boundaries takes Ford where no sponsor has dared go before

ROBIN ROBERTS

So you're flipping around the dial when you come across a hapless fellow clinging to the side of a cliff in the blistering sun. The camera cuts to a group dodging rapids in half-submerged kayaks. Later, more people inch their way across a glacier riven by gaping crevasses. Great, you think, Eco-challenge is back. Humans testing the limits of endurance and stamina under the cruellest of conditions. Then the groups pile into plush, air-conditioned Ford SUVs. Hmmm. Other intrepid bands, after hacking through dense forest or hiking along a rugged coastline, hop into their Ford SUVs. By the time the fourth Ford appears, you’re thinking, something’s up here.

And something certainly is. This Ecochallenge-meers-Survivor adventure series,

called No Boundaries, is a unique partnership between Vancouver’s Lions Gate Entertainment and Ford Motor Co., designed to showcase the automakers new line of SUVs. Hence the Fords in the show— which premieres on the WB and Global networks on March 3—as well as in the commercials. Now that you know, does it bother you? Are you thinking, “Hey, I’ve just been tricked into watching an hourlong infomercial for Ford!”?

Ford and everyone else involved is banking that such thoughts won’t cross your mind. They may be right. “If the producers can develop a great adventure show with exciting events encompassing this province’s beauty, then what does it matter who sponsors it?” says Ron Butler, 72, of Blind Bay, B.C., a retired engineering firm executive and avid TV viewer. His wife, Jill, 68, is more skeptical. “Having a show

that’s created to advertise a product makes me wonder how phony the whole thing would be,” she says about the competition for prizes. “I’d watch a couple of times to check it out but I doubt if it would hold my interest as Survivor does.”

Direct corporate sponsorship of television shows isn’t new—remember Milton Berles Texaco Star Theater in the 1930s? And they don’t call them “soap” operas for nothing—Procter & Gamble, in fact, still owns and produces Guiding Light and As the World Turns. We’ve become used to product placement in top series. We may have rolled our eyes each time a bucket of ice-cold Mountain Dew was dragged out on Survivor, but we kept watching.

The difference with No Boundaries is the degree of Ford’s involvement, on tape and behind the scenes. In addition to co-producing the series and bearing the majority

(no one will be more specific) of the US$500,000-per-episode costs, Ford was involved in casting—presumably handpicking ideal Ford buyers. It also maintained a presence on set to ensure its vehicles are presented as appealingly as possible. Flat tire? Stall? Get outta here!

Named after Ford’s SUV marketing campaign, the show is hosted by extreme sportsman Troy Flartman, described in the production notes as “a world-ranked skysurfer who recently hosted MTV’s Senseless Acts of VideoS It features 15 contestants ranging in age from 19 to 53, four of them Canadian, making their way north from Vancouver Island to the Arctic Circle via foot, boat, bike, llama, plane, train and Ford. The winner gets US$100,000 and an SUV (you can guess which brand.)

The network-marketer partnership was the brainchild of Lions Gate, which secured the rights to the show from the Scandinavian Broadcasting System (it’s based on a Norwegian series called 71 Degrees North), and then approached J. Walter Thompson, Ford’s U.S. advertising agency. “The agency had seen the success of Survivor and some of the sponsors getting huge exposure and returns on their investment,” says Kevin Beggs, president of television production for Lions Gate. “It was looking at how to get involved in a more meaningful way, rather than just sponsoring or taking spots.”

Not that anyone involved will admit to creating an hour-long commercial. “You’d have to have a lot more shots of the cars” for that to be true, argues Beggs. “The show’s focus is really on the people and what they’re doing, what they’re feeling. What we achieved on behalf of Ford is a really rugged environment. You’d look at that place and say you’d really need an SUV to get around there.” J. Walter Thompson’s group communications director, Curt Jaksen, insists that No Boundaries is no hour-long ad. “We couldn’t do that. WB didn’t want that. Global didn’t want that. No one would want that. We can go and do an infomercial or a time buy. That’s not what this is about.”

What this is about is 15 fit men and women triumphing over adversity—with a little help from their Ford SUVs—for 13 prime-time episodes. If the action can hold the demographic Ford wants, No Boundaries may well prove far more effective for the car giant than an infomercial or time buy. From the networks’ standpoint, much of the cost is covered by Ford, and

half the commercials are pre-sold to it as well. Should the series be a hit, other networks are set to jump on the gravy train. NBC is already in negotiations with CocaCola to develop a Coke vehicle called Stepping Stones, starring Gregory Hines.

So where does this leave viewers? While many brisde at the notion of big business trampling even more heavily over their living rooms, others seemingly couldn’t care less. “In a world where most viewers actually see themselves as consumers, I would

imagine they will hardly notice,” says Murray Pomerance, a sociologist at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Contemporary viewers like to believe they are media savvy, Pomerance observes, but they’re wrong if they think that makes them ad-proof. “You can be an astute critic, indeed, and still be hoodwinked into powerlessness even if you know exactly what’s going on.” If true, that’s good news for manufacturers and advertisers. They too would have no boundaries. El