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?

The Spot:A man lies comatose in a hospital bed. His anguished lover asks the doctors if there's anything she can do. Despair is taking hold when suddenly the man's eyes open, and he begins to talk. "My team ... it's a keeper league," he says, spitting out the words in his last throes. "Don't. Trade. Prince. Fielder!" With that, his vitals go dead, the doctors bring in defibrillator paddles, and the woman starts to wail. An announcer intones: "Join the endless drama. Play fantasy baseball on ESPN." (Click here  to watch the spots.)

The purpose of this campaign (it includes a teaser ad that runs on TV, plus several more Webisodes available at EndlessDrama.com) is to create and retain interest in ESPN's fantasy-baseball leagues. According to the ad agency behind the campaign, the fantasy-baseball season can feel "long" and "daunting" to some players. Thus the ads—with their references to the "endless drama" inherent in fantasy sports—are meant both to fire up excitement for the start of the new season and to encourage players to stick it out for the whole marathon.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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I'm a decent test case for the campaign. I've played fantasy baseball in the past, and the long season waiting ahead does feel daunting. So daunting, in fact, that this year I finally decided to opt out. I couldn't get jazzed about signing on for another six months of statistics parsing. I couldn't summon the passion required to scour the waiver wire, replace injured players, assess daily spreadsheets, and make lots of careful, math-based decisions. It seemed like it might be more fun just to watch some real baseball games on TV.

So, did this ESPN campaign work on me? Did it get me psyched up for my league's draft and stoke my fires for another half-year of fantasy "drama"? No. (Frankly, by late July, the only drama in my league is over who can come up with the punniest team name. Queer as Foulke? Siouxsie and the Ben Sheets?) But my mind was already made up, and, indeed, my league has now started without me. For people who were still on the fence as this season loomed, it's possible the ads offered a nudge of encouragement.

Any habitual fantasy player will enjoy the knowingness of the jokes. The ads get all the details right and are clearly written by people familiar with the ins and outs of nerdball. (In fact, one of the ad-agency creatives involved with the campaign has actually written a book about playing fantasy football.) References to lopsided trades, shady waiver wire pickups, and "keeper leagues" (in which you can carry players over from one season to the next) help establish geek cred.

And framing the campaign as a soap opera parody is a clever idea. It puts forth the notion that a season of fantasy baseball offers enough unexpected ups and downs to keep players engaged for months on end (just as a soap buoys along its viewers on a stream of twists and turns). But the trouble with the campaign is that it gets the balance wrong: It's too much about soaps, not enough about baseball. While nailing the parody, it sort of forgets why it's here in the first place. (Perhaps, like a soap character in a head bandage, it has amnesia? Or maybe this is the evil, goateed twin of the real campaign?)

Executives at Arnold Worldwide, the agency behind the spots, had originally planned to hire a big-name commercial director to mimic soap opera production values. But then they realized: Why not just get the real thing? Through connections between ESPN and ABC, they enlisted a director from the long-running soap One Life To Live and even filmed on the show's sets.

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