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

Advertising deconstructed.
March 31 2008 11:23 AM

Jorge Posada Is Having Laura's Baby!

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.

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.

"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."