A new ESPN campaign spoofs soap operas. Is that a good thing?

Advertising deconstructed.
March 31 2008 11:23 AM

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A new ESPN campaign spoofs soap operas. Is that a good thing?

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"The way they shoot soaps is completely different from the commercial world," says executive creative director Roger Baldacci. "The director sits in a control room with lots of monitors. They have three cameras running, and he snaps his fingers to switch cameras and go live to the next one. You're seeing the whole ad happen live [instead of filming one camera angle, stopping to set up the next shot, and then restarting with another camera angle]. The lighting technician sits in the control room, too, and they have every light imaginable on the ceiling of the set. With the push of a button, they can change the lighting. In the commercial world, we would stop for 45 minutes while they set up flags and bounces and the D.P. [director of photography] anguishes over everything." Baldacci says they shot all eight ads, plus a lot of ancillary material, in two days. "The efficiency was incredible."

Baldacci sounds entranced with his trip to Soapville, but I think this immersion strategy may have backfired a little. Using actual soap crews (and performers—there are actors here on loan from One Life To Live and All My Children) made the soap opera jokes almost more rooted and authentic than the fantasy-baseball jokes. "There are overdramatic pauses, camera zoom-ins, and other little elements that make it feel right," says Baldacci. "For instance, in a soap, they have a lot of time to let scenes play out, and there's more dead time. So, we let our pacing become much more relaxed than it normally would be in an ad. We trimmed them up a little bit, but we had to fight that urge in order to stay true to the genre."


My question is: Who in ESPN's target audience will really care how well these ads capture the mood and aesthetics of soaps? I'm sure there are a few dudes out there who are avid fans both of soap opera and of fantasy baseball (though I would advise them not to mention this in their online dating profiles). But the vast majority of dorkball enthusiasts are men with zero interest in daytime melodrama. It occurred to me that perhaps the campaign was an effort to attract more women to ESPN's fantasy leagues, but the agency says this was not its goal. (There are a few million female players, but they make up a small percentage of the fantasy universe.)

The ads are funniest when we see real baseball stars thrust into the soap setting. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada does a nice turn as a bartender breaking up a fight. (His wife also appears as a love interest. When I asked if she was an actress, the ad guys described her as "an aspiring actress.") But some of the episodes feature no baseball players at all—just the soap actors and maybe a bland ESPN commentator. I can't see how these spots could hold much appeal for a jocky audience. In fact, some Web sleuthing last week suggested that the campaign is stirring up more intense interest on soap opera message boards, where fans are delighting at the chance to see their soap heroes appear in a sports context. Great for the soap fans, but I think ESPN was hoping for the opposite effect.

Grade: B-. Almost too well-executed. The ads play so much like real soap scenes that they neglect to do enough spoofing. I did enjoy the "smack videos" available at EndlessDrama.com. These are intended to keep you excited about your fantasy league as the season wears on by letting you e-mail unsportsmanlike video clips to your competitors. For instance, you can send a clip of a sexy nurse who offers sympathy to opponents when their star players get injured. "It's not enough just to win in fantasy sports," chuckles Baldacci. "You have to rub it in."



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