Ford and NBC have gotten together to launch an unprecedented bit of product placement: a prime-time reality series on network television that is built entirely around a particular product supplied by the brand, in a co-produced show by both parties.
Escape Routes is a six-week show that will air on Saturday nights on NBC and on mun2, NBCUniversal's bicultural network for young Latino-Americans, beginning March 31, with repeats on nbc.com and mun2.com the next day. The mini-series will focus on the adventures of six two-person teams involved in a unique road-trip competition in their 2013 Ford Escape SUVs. Prizes along the way include the red-hot Nike FuelBand. The grand prize: $100,000 plus two all-new Ford Escapes for the winning team.
While acknowledging how P&G and Walmart have collaborated on a made-for-TV family-friendly movies, some of which have run on NBC, Crystal Worthem, Ford's brand content and alliances manager, maintained that Escape Routes is "absolutely groundbreaking." She told brandchannel that "the creative piece of this is centrally launching a product and a brand new, compelling reality show at the same time."
Jim Farley, Ford's CMO, stated in the press release announcing Escape Routes that "This is the first time an automaker has used prime-time television to launch a new vehicle." (U.S. cable networks, particularly smaller niche networks, have dabbled in this arena, as have branded entertainment series the web and video-on-demand.)
Saturday evening, of course, is notorious as a wasteland for original prime-time programming on American TV, which was one factor in NBC's thinking. The show and its unique use of social media "will add a compelling element to Saturday nights," James Hoffman, NBC's EVP of sales and marketing, said in the release. "We continue to look for breakthrough ways to work with our partners" and this "was a unique opportunity we hadn't seen before."
Worthem said that "what made it interesting for NBC to partner with us is that we came to them not with an infomercial but with great content that they can run, and a regular show they can sell advertising in."
Ford has been known as the vanguard of branded entertainment (such as the Focus Doug spokespuppet web series) and social media (the Fiesta Movement in 2009 put the new Fiesta in the hands of 100 consumers) for the auto industry. Now, with Escape Routes as a socially-seeded TV show, Ford aims to leapfrog the competition once again.
Each week's "competition" is taped for the show, in a succession of six major cities, but viewers will see the teams live at the beginning and at the end of each episode, and a post-show online chat will be "hosted" by iJustine, a cyber-celeb-for-hire. Fans can interact with the participants online as well during each week and also affect the competition with interactive challenges in which each team must rely on its followers. You can also follow along on escaperoutes.com, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
As an early adopter of Google+, to promote the launch of Escape Routes, the cast and producers held a Google+ "Hangout" or interactive chat today. Last fall, Ford kicked off Escape Routes with actress Jenny McCarthy "competing against the entire country in the world's largest Words With Friends game. Ford joined with Zynga, the world's largest social game developer, to reveal the Escape through social gaming."
Escape is one of the hoariest nameplates in the SUV segment, but even the previous version has been selling well lately. Escape Routes represents a major part of Ford's thrust to strengthen the vehicle's demographics, particularly to drive the age of purchasers down to twenty- and thirty-something young professionals. "These people are heavy DVR users, so we want to get content to them on the big screen with our products," Worthem said.
Like many other things Ford has done in the digital, social and branded-content realms, Escape Routes will be watched closely by competitors — and maybe even by viewers. Watch a preview below and let us know what you think in the comments.