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Advertisers Warm up to Graphic Violence to Grab Some of 'Walking Dead's' Sizzle

Television IndustryMedia IndustryAMC (tv network)NBCMad Men (tv program)Comcast CorporationBreaking Bad (tv program)

With its regular use of dangling entrails, severed limbs and spurting blood, AMC's "The Walking Dead" seems like the most inhospitable roost an advertiser could find. Who wants to put an ad for hamburgers next to a scene of a zombie's skull being impaled?

Turns out, plenty of sponsors do.

A package of ads on "The Walking Dead" cost advertisers between $200,000 and $260,000 in the upfront market leading up to the show's third season, in 2012 and 2013, according to ad buyers. For the program's most recent cycle, the price skyrocketed: A package of ads in the violent series was going for around $326,000 - a stunning leap of between 25% and 63% over the course of a year. Generally speaking, only NFL showcases like NBC's "Sunday Night Football" and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" cost more in primetime.

"I would almost classify 'Walking Dead' as live programming, like an NFL football game," said Michael Boyd, head of advertising for Farmers Insurance, one of the show's regular sponsors. "It's a water-cooler show, and there are fewer and fewer of those shows out there." The series attracts the sort of rabidly intense audience, he added, that can help promote an advertiser via social media.

Who knew that commerce could result from placing a promotion alongside the grisly scene of a brain-dead zombie munching on flesh? Despite the gore, the unlikely TV crowd-pleaser has struck a chord with the general populace -- and, as such, the advertisers who want to court their favor. Even Comcast, not the world's most frivolous company, chose "Walking Dead" to help launch national ads that seek to convince satellite-TV subscribers to switch over to the wired world of cable.

AMC's zombie hordes and the survivors who seek to avoid them may be emblematic of the struggles faced by modern consumers, who face the lingering effects of a recent recession; environmental upheaval; and an increase in the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Indeed, it's often unclear whether the title of the program refers to the flesh-eating undead who swarm the earth or the heroes who struggle in such a hostile milieu.

Running an ad in support of such a show can be risky. During at least one airing of the March 16 episode of "Dead," an ad for Paramount Pictures' "Noah" immediately followed a horrific segment in which a young girl is found holding a bloody knife after killing her even younger sister. The scene sparked backlash among certain viewers, who felt the program had overstepped its bounds by portraying violence among children.

Whatever "Dead's" tone, the cable show can, on the right night, nab more young viewers than even the broadcast of an Olympics session on NBC. "Walking Dead's" fourth season delivered on average 13.3 million live or same-day viewers per episode, as well as 8.6 million between the ages of 18 and 49 -- the demographic most coveted by advertisers. Those figures represent a 24% increase in total viewers and a 22% increase in adults 18-49.

The crowds have proven irresistible to movie studios, videogame makers, auto manufacturers and marketers of beers and spirits, many of whom turn up each week in support of the latest episode. Yet even some sponsors who have been known to shy away from polarizing content are showing up in the series' ad breaks. Procter & Gamble, which has a reputation for steering clear of programs that are unusually bloody or risque, has used "Walking Dead" to hawk its Old Spice male-grooming line. The company did not respond to a request seeking comment.

One reason for the attraction to the program? AMC is open to striking deals that allow advertisers to incorporate themes or content from the program into their 30-second spots. Microsoft, Hyundai and Farmers Insurance have run ads in the series that make reference to zombies. One recent Farmers ad, for example, talks about a "zombie disaster reaction plan." A Hyundai ad frequently accompanying the show depicts one of the automaker's vehicles gussied up for zombie battle.

At the same time, AMC is sparing with product placement in the series itself (although a kiwi-green Hyundai Tucson has made several in-show appearances thanks to an integration pact). Although some marketers have petitioned for a walk-on role in the drama, the barrier has some appeal. "They are not going to bastardize the show for the sake of a dollar amount," said Brent Poer, president of LiquidThread North America, an agency that specializes in weaving together advertisers and content.

The policies allow advertisers to make their commercials more relevant to the show's viewers -- and result in a series of pitches that can run only on AMC.

As the cabler works to replace flagship programs like the recently ended "Breaking Bad" and the departing "Mad Men," it will need to use "Walking Dead" as a calling card while stocking its schedule with new and unproven programming. Once a cable network gets a hit, said John Muszynski, chief investment officer at ad-buying agency Spark, "They are not going to just sell you that hit. Now they want you to buy a significant amount of water along with the scotch."

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