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Extra3/5/2007 4:40 PM ET

Are Geico's cavemen ready for prime time?

Marketers who once would have been thrilled to place a product in a movie or TV show now want to inspire entertainment programming that reminds viewers of a brand.

By The Wall Street Journal

Is finding a way for marketers to beat commercial-zapping DVRs and helping networks to cure the distressed state of TV comedy so simple that a caveman could do it?

ABC's decision last week to greenlight a half-hour pilot program based on Geico's popular cavemen characters highlights the blurring line between advertising and entertainment, as well as the trouble the network has had in launching successful sitcoms.

Although the project is at a nascent stage -- there's no script and no cast -- plans call for the comedy to be titled "Cavemen" and focus on a trio of prehistoric characters who battle prejudice in modern-day Atlanta. Walt Disney's (DIS, news, msgs) ABC will pay for the pilot and show, if one eventually materializes. Geico, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A, news, msgs), will have no creative control but will receive a royalty payment for the use of the characters.

"We sell car insurance; we don't make TV shows," says Ted Ward, Geico's vice president of marketing. "We are excited to have an opportunity to do brand extension."

A brand-name reminder

While marketers have long depended heavily on so-called product placement, in which products are written into the story line of a show, some are now going even further by creating entertainment programming that subtly reminds viewers of a brand name.

"It's about delivering to them something they want to see and not interrupting them," says Doug Scott, the executive director of branded content and entertainment at Ogilvy & Mather North America. In many ways, the trend harkens back to early TV, when shows such as "The Colgate Comedy Hour" were produced or sponsored by advertisers.

One of the most aggressive has been Burger King Holdings (BKC, news, msgs). The chain has focused over the last year on lifting the profile of its "king" mascot, a mute character best known for his creepy smile. The burger baron recently starred in a series of video games, and the company says it has lined up a studio and distributor for a feature film.

Russ Klein, Burger King's president of global marketing strategy, won't reveal the studio's identity or the likely plot. But he says the movie could appear as early as the end of this year, with the film aimed at "creating a back story for the king."

Out of the cave

Geico introduced the cavemen characters three years ago, initially in an ad promoting Geico's Web site that used the slogan "It's so easy to use, even a caveman could do it." The ad became popular and a series of sequels followed, mostly centered on the idea of cavemen being offended by the insensitive slogan of the first commercial.

The characters have achieved celebrity status, thanks, in part, to Geico's enormous ad budget. The insurer spent an estimated $403 million on ad time and space in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence, an amount expected to be up 20% last year although final data aren't available.

Geico receives hundreds of letters and e-mails about the characters, and fans at college sporting events have been known to hold up signs that say "Beating (team name) is so easy, even a caveman can do it."

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